BUFFALO, N.Y. – The opportunity to sign Ville Leino was worth more to the Buffalo Sabres than risking a chance to enter the Brad Richards sweepstakes on the first day of the NHL’s free-agency period Friday.
Cancelling plans to take a run at Richards, the Sabres focused their attention on signing the dependable two-way forward to a six-year, US$27-million contract. Terms of Leino’s deal were provided to The Associated Press by a person familiar with the contract who spoke on the condition of anonymity because those details were not disclosed by the Sabres.
General manager Darcy Regier was confident the Sabres made the right decision in selecting Ville over Richards, who was regarded as the prized player in free agency this summer. Regier had went so far as to make plans to travel to suburban Toronto, where Richards was entertaining offers, before talks heated up with Leino.
“We felt very strongly about Ville, and we felt that it was important to make sure we didn’t allow a quality player like him to slip by us,” Regier said. “He was someone we identified early and moved him to the top of the list.”
Leino is a 27-year-old from Finland who has four years of NHL experience after playing the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s versatile enough to play all three forward positions, has good puck-possession skills and is responsible in the defensive zone.
The Sabres have already pegged him as a first- or second-line centre in addressing yet another need this off-season to improve a team that was eliminated from the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two years.
Buffalo’s already made several splashes this week.
On Thursday, the Sabres signed defenceman Christian Ehrhoff to a 10-year, $40 million contract. Last weekend, they acquired defenceman Robyn Regehr and forward Ales Kotalik in a trade with Calgary.
Earlier on Friday, the Sabres re-signed forward Cody McCormick to a three year, $3.6 million contract before he was eligible to become a free agent.
Regier said he’s likely done shopping, but didn’t rule out adding to his roster through trades this summer. Regier acknowledged the additions have put his payroll over the $64.3 NHL salary cap. That means he will be required to make cuts to get under the cap once it comes into effect at the start of the regular season.
Leino had a career-best 53 points (19 goals) in finishing fifth among the Flyers last season. Leino was also a key cog in helping the Flyers reach the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, when he had seven goals and 14 assists.
Leino initially broke into the NHL in 2008, when the Red Wings signed him as an undrafted free agent. He has 30 goals and 43 assists for 73 points in 149 career games.
Leino was impressed by the Sabres after meeting them in the playoffs in April, when the Flyers rallied from a 3-2, first-round series deficit to eliminate Buffalo in seven games.
“It was a tough series and, to be honest with you, I think they deserved to win,” Leino said, by phone from Finland. “I was looking at their roster earlier on, and I think they made some good additions. … I think we’ll have a good chance to win next year.”
Leino was also interested in securing a long-term deal.
“I wanted to focus on hockey and forget about everything else, contracts, everything,” he said.
McCormick returns to Buffalo after earning a regular role in the Sabres lineup last season. That’s when he had eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 81 games—all career bests in his six-plus NHL seasons.
Overall, he has 50 points (17 goals) in 271 NHL games split between Buffalo and Colorado.
The Sabres elected against re-signing centre Tim Connolly, who became a free agent. Connolly had been the Sabres’ longest active serving player after being acquired in a trade that sent former captain Michael Peca to the Islanders in the summer of 2001.
Injuries have hampered Connolly’s playing time, as he missed the entire 2003-04 season due to post-concussion symptoms. He had 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points in 68 games last season.