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Leino: Season was a battle; Sabres forward gives a candid assessment

Ville Leino was nearly invisible with a hockey stick in his hand. Off the ice, however, he was the Sabres' straightest shooter.

Leino candidly and honestly delivered opinions on any subject that came up this season. The switch from left wing to center? Hated it. The crowd in Buffalo? Too quiet. The atmosphere in the dressing room? Not fun enough. Games early in the season? Sometimes it's tough to get excited for them.

So, as he said farewell to a forgettable season, it was no surprise Leino came clean about his first year in Buffalo.

"It was a battle from the start till the end," Leino told The Buffalo News during his only interview on locker cleanout day.

In a hype-filled season, no one failed to live up to the billing more than Leino. The Sabres felt the forward was coming into his own as an NHL force and paid big bucks to lure him to Buffalo. The first season of the six-year, $27 million contract was an unquestioned bust.

Leino recorded just eight goals and 25 points in 71 games. He had as many suspensions as game-winning goals (one). He had the same number of power-play points as broken feet (also one).

"It took me a really long time to get used to all the stuff," Leino said. "Sometimes the flow in our game wasn't the way that it should be. We didn't get the puck. Our defense didn't get the pucks to forwards. We didn't make enough plays. We didn't have the puck enough. The flow of the game, it wasn't quite there.

"Sometimes when you go out there and play, it's easy. It's just hockey. You go. But sometimes this season I felt like it was a different game. I wasn't feeling comfortable. I wasn't feeling like I was just playing hockey. Sometimes I had to think too much or it just was not coming naturally."

An inability or unwillingness to adapt to a new position hindered Leino's season from the outset. The 28-year-old played wing for Detroit and Philadelphia, but the Sabres needed a center. Leino said he'd played in the middle while developing in Finland, and both he and the Sabres seemed excited about the prospect of moving back to center.

That excitement disappeared quickly. Leino asked out of the middle in the opening weeks, and the request was granted by the end of October.

"I'm sure that was a big part of the process," Leino said. "It still changed at the end [with a move back to the middle], but I was just more comfortable with all the changes and didn't really care that much anymore. I just wanted to play."

Leino made it clear he wants to play more and in a consistent role next season. He wasn't fond of the position switches and line-to-line bouncing. He usually didn't skate as a top-six forward, though his numbers didn't warrant prime ice time.

"Hopefully, I can see myself out there somewhere in the lineup, maybe try to find a better spot for me," Leino said. "Hopefully, I can play some power play and get some points. I think I've just got to come back and start making those plays and play my game right away and start feeling comfortable."

The absence of power-play time was a difference from his time in Philly. He recorded five of his 19 goals and 11 of 53 points on the power play last season. This year, he had one goal and no assists as his man-advantage ice time dropped from 2:18 per game with the Flyers to 1:02 with the Sabres.

His comments suggest coach Lindy Ruff misused him and other players.

"There was a lot of pieces that were kind of out of place," Leino said. "Also, they've got to work with what they were given. We have a lot of good players and we're a good team, which we proved at the end. We just didn't get that chemistry and all that right away at the start, and it was probably too late.

"Coaches do most of the work, and obviously players want to be better, too. I think we've just got to get more out of everybody, which we did at the end. It doesn't matter who plays if you don't get their talents out. You've got to try to use everybody with what they're best at."

Said Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier: "I think that Lindy approaches using these guys in their optimal position. Where a player gets used certainly has some relevance. I think the focus mostly is on players' performance individually."

Leino's performance was consistently non-existent. He scored in the season opener, but it was one of only two goals in the first 26 games. He had a 14-game drought, two skids of 13 games and a pair of 11-game goal-less streaks.

"As everyone knows Ville had an underperforming year statistically," Regier said. "What I do like about Ville is he's a very competitive guy. He's hard on the puck, and he does a very good job controlling play. Statistically, we've got to get him back to where he was prior to last season."

Leino wants to get back to having fun. He wants to get back to scoring. He wants to get back to being an integral piece of the puzzle.

He needs to show why the Sabres felt he was worth $4.5 million per year. The first year wasn't worth it for either side.

"About halfway, I started feeling better," Leino said. "At the end, I started feeling pretty good, but it was a really tough season. I don't know what it was [that changed]. I can't really tell that. I started feeling comfortable on the ice, making plays and stuff like that. I don't know what exactly is behind that, but I just felt better.

"There was a lot of things that I need to do better next year."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com