Flyers’ Leino Making Most of Opportunity

NHLHS writer David Strehle takes a look at the talented Ville Leino and his much-anticipated NHL emergence, which is finally showing signs of coming to fruition.

At 6′ 0″ and 180 pounds, Ville Leino is not the most imposing physical specimen when compared to the average size of NHL players today.

But give him a stick and a puck, and it immediately becomes quite evident that this guy can be something special.

After a dominating year for Jokerit-Helsinki Finland in 2007-08 in which he scored 28 goals and 77 points in 55 games, Leino has had his ups-and-downs since being signed as a free agent on May 10th, 2008 by the Detroit Red Wings.

Blessed with the gifted hands of a natural playmaker and goal-scorer, the 26-year-old native of Savonlinna, Finland had high expectations coming in to play with the Red Wings.

Jokerit Helsinki head coach and former-Red Wing Doug Shedden said: He’s a heck of a competitor.  He probably led the (Finnish SM-Liiga) in practice fights.  He loves to come to the rink, he loves to practice, he loves to put his equipment on and compete.  He’s strong on the puck down low, he’s a good cycle guy, and he draws a lot of penalties because of his puck control.”

Head coach Mike Babcock expressed the expectations of the Red Wings organization pretty well:  “He’s got a nose for the net, goes to the net, dominant on the cycle, makes great passes.  He’s a Red Wings-type player.  Leino, I think he’s going to be a scoring machineI’m very impressed.  He’s got a long way to go to be the type of two-way guy I expect him to be, but he’s going to be a good Red Wing for a long time.”

Hmmm, that description sounds a lot like Johan Franzen, a player that Leino resembles in many ways.

And not unlike Franzen, Leino has been a late-bloomer.  Franzen scored just 22 goals and 46 points in his first 149 games over the course of his first two NHL seasons. Leino played in just 55 games over the course of two seasons in Detroit, scoring only nine goals and 16 points.

But the knock on Leino was his defensive play was lacking, and sometimes he wasn’t very involved in the game.  That’s a really good way to get moved out of Detroit.

Midway through this season, Leino had just four goals and seven points in 42 games.  He had gone goalless in his last six games and had just one in his previous 21 before that.

Leino had become a regular healthy scratch as of late-January, and he wondered out loud as to how he fit, or more likely, how he didn’t fit, into the Red Wings’ plans.

Leino had this to say at the beginning of February, 2010:  “You can’t really think about it.  Obviously, it’s crossed everybody’s mind.  It’s (a trade) going to happen if it’s going to happen.  Nothing you can do about it right now.  On the ice right now, I feel pretty good.  I feel I’m practicing and doing the stuff I used to do.  I actually feel pretty confident.  We’ll see what’s going to happen now.”

On February 6th, 2010, Leino was dealt to Philadelphia for little-used defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and a 2011 fifth round pick.

He didn’t get into a game for almost a month after his acquisition, but on March 3rd, Leino scored a goal in his Flyers’ debut, a 7-4 loss to the Panthers in Florida.

Over the course of the last couple of months of the regular season, Leino played in 13 games with the Orange-and-Black, scoring two goals and four points.

Much like in Detroit, his desire and defensive play came into question, and head coach Peter Laviolette was making Leino a frequent healthy scratch.

But like many things that have happened in Philadelphia over the course of the past couple of months, fate intervened.

In game four of the first round against the New Jersey Devils, Philly forwards Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne were both lost with fractures in their resepective right feet after blocking shots.  Leino once again got an opportunity.

This time, he has been placed on a line with red-hot scorer Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, and the trio has been lighting it up ever since.

The line has been dominant, and Leino has registered two goals and eight points in his last five games.  He now has three goals and 11 points in 10 playoff games during this postseason.

Included in those totals are two crucial assists in the history-making game seven against the Boston Bruins in round two on May 14th when the Flyers became just the third team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series.

Leino assisted on Gagne’s series-winning power play goal midway through the third period,  completing an incredible comeback in game seven after again falling behind 3-0 to Boston.

And the great play has continued into the present series against Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens.  Leino had two assists in the first game and scored a goal last night on Halak, who was the leading Conn Smythe Trophy candidate as playoff MVP through the first two rounds.  He now has a goal and two assists in the two games against Montreal, a series in which Philadelphia leads 2-0.

Leino said in an interview with NHL.com after last night’s game:  “You want to enjoy hockey and I can’t play hockey if I’m not having fun.  If I’m not feeling confident out there … In Detroit I always had a coach or somebody behind my back telling me to do this, do that or don’t do that, and I don’t know if it just didn’t work out there.  I’m not blaming anyone because it was a great learning experience, but it just didn’t work out.  Now it’s just a different situation.”

He told the Toronto Sun:  “I’ve seen the bottom of the barrel.  It was an awful regular season.  I don’t know if you sometimes have to go to the bottom to get back on top.  Mentally it was tough and hopefully I got stronger from all that.”

Philadelphia has had its share of very talented players that didn’t make the grade and passed on through.  Mike Bullard and Pavel Brendl come to mind.  But it looks as though Leino is putting it all together.  And as for moving on after this season, Leino is signed through next season for a low $800k.

It looks like he will have his chance to keep proving himself and stay with the Flyers long-term.

And being instrumental in the Flyers making it to the Stanley Cup Finals would be a good start.

David Strehle
NHLHS Flyers Correspondent / NHL Writer
dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com
Twitter: @PhilaDAVEia