Sabres decision helping Leafs

Sabres forward Ville Leino skates during the warmup prior to facing the Maple Leafs at First...

Sabres forward Ville Leino skates during the warmup prior to facing the Maple Leafs at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., Sep. 24, 2011. (RICK STEWART/Getty Images/AFP)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:18 AM ET

BUFFALO - The suspicion inside the Sabres dressing room, as unfair as the Buffalo players might feel it will be, is that Tim Connolly will be greeted by a chorus of boos when he steps on to the ice during his return to Buffalo on Friday night.

Maybe so.

But at least he will be ON the ice.

That’s a claim Ville Leino won’t be making.

As colleague Rob Longley points out in his column, the electric vibe at the First Niagara Center will be “almost playoff-like,” what with Connolly again in the house along with thousands of blue-and-white clad Leafs fans.

As for the loyal Sabres supporters on hand, well, the prologue leading up to this Northeast Division nightmare could not be any worse.

Tim Connolly, the injury-plagued veteran deemed expendable by Buffalo over the summer, comes back to his old stomping grounds on a roll, having scored both goals in the Leafs’ 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Leino, the youngster Sabres owner Terry Pegula shelled out gobs of cash for during the off-season, is believed to have injured his foot or lower leg against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday and will be out “for weeks,” according to the Sabres.

That is the same Ville Leino who was brought in to augment a Sabres forward unit that no longer had room for Tim Connolly.

Keep in mind that, at least on paper, this was not two teams trading a pair of players for each other.

At the same time, it was the Sabres organization that decided to woo Leino as part of a housecleaning that left Connolly on the outside looking in. It was their choice.

Buffalo’s logic, at least in the minds of coach Lindy Ruff and GM Darcy Regier, seemed sound.

At 28, Leino was two years younger than Connolly. He seemed more durable, too. And, truth be told, Connolly’s penchant for ending up in the trainer’s room made him one of the biggest scapegoats this side of Scott Norwood in the eyes of the fine citizens of Buffalo.

Yet, after just 30 games of the new season, things have not gone to plan for the limping Sabres.

With heavy expectations heaped on him because of his whopping contract, Leino, who was signed as a centre, registered just two points in his first eight games before requesting to be shifted back to the wing, where he played last season with the Flyers. All the while, critics wondered why a six-year, $27-million US deal was given to a guy who had just 30 career NHL goals.

Now, just as he was finally beginning to find his scoring touch with his new team in his new city, Leino’s injury can be considered yet another frustrating setback.

“He was starting to heat up a bit with five points in seven games before the injury,” coach Lindy Ruff said on Thursday. “That’s what we figured we were getting when we signed him: A five-points-in-seven games guy.

“That’s what he is. He’s not going to get you 100 points. But we liked his puck-possession skills and thought he’d be good at getting pucks to our scorers.”

With Leino having recorded just 10 points in 29 games, Ruff figures the former Flyer was trying too hard to live up to his contract, an ailment shared by another big-name free agent pickup, defenceman Christian Ehrhoff.

“I think that was the case with Christian, too,” Ruff said. “I mean, any time you come into a situation like that with a new team, guys press. Look at how James Neal struggled when he was first traded to the Penguins last year.”

As for Connolly, he has five more points than Leino this season despite having played 11 fewer games. Perhaps that, in itself, is a sign that a change of scenery was good for all concerned.

“When Tim played, he was very good for us,” Ruff said. “Unfortunately, he was hurt a lot. Losing him to injury in the playoffs last spring may have been one of the biggest reasons we lost to the Flyers.

“We knew we already had Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad up the middle. And we knew we had Luke Adam coming, too.”

Most of those making the trek down the QEW and across the border on Friday night would claim, with bias, that the Leafs came out ahead in this one, even though Connolly already has missed 12 games due to injury this season. And, in the short term, they might be right.

But, long term, it will take many more games before we can realistically judge if the Sabres choice ultimately went boom or bust.


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