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Sabres hope move to top line spurs struggling Leino

by Adam Kimelman
When Ville Leino arrived in Philadelphia during the 2009-10 season, it took him a while to find his footing.

But once he joined a line with Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, his offensive production went up like a rocket.

Could the same thing be in store for Leino again?

Leino, who signed a five-year, $27 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres in July, will play against the Flyers for the first time Wednesday (7:30 p.m. Versus, TSN2), and could be poised to have a strong run with some new linemates.

Ville Leino
Center - BUF
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 5 | +/-: -4
The Sabres signed Leino with the hope he could be a top-line center, but he hasn't lived up to those expectations yet -- he has just 1 goal and 2 points in 10 games. In that time he's gone from top-line center to fourth-line center, to playing the wing on a checking line.

Nothing, however, has worked, and his ice time has shrunk in relation, bottoming out at 9:35 in the Sabres' last game, a loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday.

"I tried to go down to three lines to get things going, and to that point he didn't have too much going on," coach Lindy Ruff said after the game.

"It's really tough to play with nine, 10 minutes a game and try to make something happen, feel comfortable out there," Leino told the Buffalo News. "It's pretty much every time you feel into it, you're not playing. It definitely is not easy for me."

Leino said part of the reason for his struggles has been the move to center, a position he played in Finland prior to coming to North America. He was moved to left wing by the Detroit Red Wings, and it's where he played when he excelled for the Flyers.

Leino was the playmaker on his line in Philadelphia, and in 2010 he set a rookie playoff record with 14 assists, and tied another record for most points by a rookie in one playoff season (21). He also helped Briere score 12 points in six games in the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, tied for second-most in League history.

Last season, he had 19 goals and 34 assists in 81 games, and followed that with 3 goals in 11 playoff games -- all against the Sabres in the first round of the postseason.

"I loved playing with Ville," Hartnell told reporters. "It seemed like he would make plays out of nothing."

So far in Buffalo, those plays haven't been there.

"There's a lot of things we can do better, and I can do better," Leino told reporters. "Obviously you're a little bit worried or whatever and you're not feeling as comfortable as you want to. You just have to work hard every day and get back at it. Once you've got the confidence and got your game going, it's a whole different game."

That different game could start Wednesday, when Leino goes back to the middle, where he'll be flanked by the Sabres' top two scorers. Thomas Vanek is tied for third in the League with 8 goals and tied for second with 15 points. Pominville is tied for fifth in the League with 14 points.

"They're really good players and they're playing well right now," Leino said. "They make a lot of plays and they are huge goal scorers. So those are the kind of players you want to be playing with.

"We'll see how it goes. They're good players and I know they think the same way about hockey and their games and do the same kind of plays as I, so it should be pretty easy to read those guys."

Pominville is positive this move will be the one that starts to get Leino back to the player he saw last season excelling in Philadelphia.

"Ville's going to be a big part of this team," he said. "He's a talented player offensively. Obviously he's had a little bit of a tough go, but hopefully by adding him with me and Thomas, we'll be able to help him out and get him going, because we need him to get some points on the board."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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