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Leino happy to be in the middle for Sabres

by Risto Pakarinen

Summer in Finland is short, sweet, and these days, hot. On July 1, however, no one was sweating more than Ville Leino, the 27-year-old free agent forward, who was fielding offers from several NHL teams.

"It was an ... interesting situation, with different offers coming in and having to make quick and big decisions," he told recently.

In the end, he chose to leave the Philadelphia Flyers for the Buffalo Sabres and their six-year, $27 million offer.

"I know it's a great team, since we played against them in the playoffs last season," Leino said of the Sabres. "Maybe they were even the better team, but the Flyers' experience finally tipped the scale to our advantage.


"I saw that it was a team with great players and a fantastic goalie, probably the best in the League, in Ryan Miller. Of course, I also know that the new owner is serious about building a championship team, having signed Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff."

Beside the money and the chance to be a part of a team on the upswing, Leino also was attracted by the chance to return to center, where he has spent most of his career, and where he thinks he's at his best.

"It's been a few years now, but it was something I did find attractive, for sure, especially coming to a team like the Sabres, in which the center has a big role," said Leino.

"All good teams have 3-4 great centers, so obviously I will have to be on top of my game. I'll play where the coach asks me to, and hopefully the chemistry will be there.”

Leino has spent his summer in his native Finland, working out on his own and instructing kids in his hockey school in Savonlinna.

"I've tried to work on my leg strength and balance, workouts that are close to hockey, to get more power to my skating and for puck battles," he said.

As for the 100 children in his hockey school, he's probably told them what he says he would tell his 18-year-old self, the one who was playing second-tier junior hockey in Finland and might not have believed that in just 10 years, he would be a sought-after NHL free agent:

Ville Leino
Left Wing - BUF
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 34 | PTS: 53
SOG: 117 | +/-: 14
"Enjoy what you do, enjoy the game. See what the better players are doing, and imitate them. Work on your skills."

Growing up in Savonlinna, Leino was considered a good player, but not a great one.

He wasn't a regular with the junior national teams, and he played with his hometown team at age 18, when other highly touted juniors had left the city. But in 2001-02, playing in the second-tier junior league in Finland, Leino's scoring exploded. He had 36 goals and 72 points in 26 games, which was good enough to earn him his junior national team debut after the season.

He signed with Ilves in the Finnish SM-liiga, but had only 2 points in 23 games, and played another 11 games with Ilves' junior team.

"I was physically very immature," Leino told "I had basically never done anything else but played hockey. It's a miracle I even survived the off-season training -- or that I didn't die of embarrassment."

After two more seasons with Ilves, Leino signed with Hameenlinna HPK for the 2005-06 season. He had at least 40 points each of his two seasons there, but he wasn’t a superstar. It was good enough to get him noticed for something else than his white skates, but not good enough to spare him from ridicule for those white skates.

The next season he took another step up the ladder, scoring 77 points in 56 games with Jokerit Helsinki, and in May 2008 he signed his first NHL contract, with the Detroit Red Wings.

After seeing sporadic action in a season and a half with the Red Wings, Leino was traded to Philadelphia on Feb. 6, 2010, where he finally got his break. After scoring 4 points in 14 regular-season games, he had a star turn in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring 21 points in 19 games to help the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Final.

"I guess a lot of people thought I'd never become a player when I didn't make the junior national teams in Finland," said Leino. "And maybe my style has always been a little un-Finnish, which may not have been appreciated. I suppose I've been perfectly foolish to stick to my own style.

"Of course, I've made compromises, too, and have matured, so that I won't do everything that pops into my mind on the ice, especially if it might hurt the team."

Playing left wing last season, he had 19 goals and 34 assists in 81 games, and he helped linemate Danny Briere score a career-best 34 goals. That helped him become a candidate for the kind of attention his got in free agency.

"Now I know the North American style and I know what I can and can't do out there," Leino said. "I know what my strengths are, and having been fortunate enough to be a part of great organizations, I've learned a thing or two about winning, too, and what it takes. It takes full commitment from everybody on the team. Every day."
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