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Tasca's Take

Great Expectations

One of the great things about the Stanley Cup playoffs is when a seemingly marginal player takes the hockey world by storm by putting together a spectacular post-season performance. 

It happens virtually every year.  Names like John Druce, Paul DiPietro, and Dave Lowry come to mind when I think of players who came out of nowhere to catch fire for a brief two-month period, never to be heard from again.  Last year, Sean Bergenheim was the Cinderella story, while Ville Leino turned the trick the previous season.

The problem with an average player displaying remarkable scoring prowess during a short playoff run is that it raises expectations.  John Druce was nothing more than a checking forward when he potted 14 goals in 15 playoff games for Washington back in 1990, but the 24-year-old’s impressive post-season binge changed his career forever.  From that point forward, he was expected to be a goal-scorer.

John Druce had a serviceable NHL career.  But he was never able to replicate the scoring magic he showcased during the ‘90 playoffs.  To this day, Druce receives phone calls from reporters who ask him about that memorable spring.  And although he’s always taken it in stride, I can’t help but wonder if Druce slightly resents the fact that his career is defined by a flukey 15-game stretch once upon a time.

Most people seem to believe that a young player performing at a high level in clutch playoff games is a harbinger of great things to come.  Pundits, management, and fans alike have always marveled at athletes who excel in the post-season, presumably because the pressure is more extreme.  What’s not considered is the possibility that the marginal player having a dream-like playoff run may be performing well because, in reality, he’s under no pressure at all. 

Pressure in sport is brought about by expectations.  In my mind, what makes Sidney Crosby so special is not necessarily his incredible skill, but his ability to score prolifically in the face of intense expectations.  Year in and year out, Crosby has to be the best player on his team or he’ll be lambasted to no end.  He’s paid to produce, and not doing so makes him accountable.  Crosby has set the bar extremely high.  That’s the price of success.

The great players are up to that task.  But is it fair to set the bar just as high for not-so-great players?

As part of their off-season shopping spree, the Buffalo Sabres signed Ville Leino to a six-year, $27-million deal.  His stock still sky-high after his impressive 2010 playoff, Leino was one of the most sought-after free agents on the market.  A slew of teams were pursuing the Finnish forward, but in the end, it was the Sabres, desperate to send a strong message to an ornery fan base over the summer, who felt Leino was deserving of his extraordinary payday. 

Virtually all Buffalo fans were ecstatic about the Leino signing.  They felt the team had filled a hole at the center position left by the departure of Daniel Briere four years ago.  Leino was considered a versatile, two-way player who could play between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.  Although many pundits around the league were aghast at the hefty salary he was given, Sabre fans, by and large, were bubbly over the prospect of witnessing Leino’s scoring prowess on a nightly basis.

Of course, Darcy Regier thought he’d landed one of the biggest fishes in the sea by signing 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,’ said Regier back in July.  “He was someone we identified early and moved him to the top of the list.”

Unfortunately, as the first half of the season has progressed, it’s quite clear that Leino isn’t the top line player he was expected to be a few months ago.  He’s scored a paltry two goals in 24 games, and his six points is good for 11th on the club.  Lindy Ruff has placed Leino with different players, using him at wing and center, but nothing’s worked.  It’s gotten so bad that Leino spent last night’s game against Detroit on the third line. 

Not surprisngly, Sabre fans have been peppering Leino with criticism as of late, and the team’s recent struggles have only intensified the ridicule.  To boot, Leino’s ice-time has dropped, as his playing on the third line would suggest.  As a result, his opportunities to snap out of his early-season funk are becoming fewer and far between.  Leino has expressed disappointment, at times openly questioning why Ruff would give less than ten minutes of ice time to one of his prized forwards. 

“I guess you could be (frustrated), but I’ve been feeling good.  I just haven’t been scoring and producing,’ Leino said before the Detroit game.  “Obviously, that’s what you need to do.”

Lindy Ruff echoed those sentiments, saying “Ville’s had, even last game, great opportunities that he’s got to start turning into goals.  He’s close, he’s just got to start cashing in.’‘

At $27-million for six years, that seems a reasonable request.  But considering Leino has yet to score 20 goals in a single NHL season, it’s not far-fetched to say the Sabres may be asking far too much of him.  This isn’t April of 2010, when Leino was a virtual unknown who caught his playoff adversaries off guard.  This season, Leino has had to deal with increased attention from opposing coaches, along with heightened expectations, and the results have been nothing short of disastrous. 

Many observers are of the belief that it’s only a matter of time before Leino breaks out and starts racking up points.  Few have pondered the possibility, and perhaps the likelihood, that Leino is simply an average hockey player who’s, for the most part, playing to his potential.  That doesn’t seem plausible when you take into account his stunning playoff output last spring.  Surely, some say, Leino won’t be dancing in the doldrums all year long.

Last year, Leino potted 53 points on a talented Philadelphia team.  Respectable, but certainly not top-line material.  At 28, Leino is in his physical prime, and the Sabres ponied up the big bucks in hopes that he could leapfrog last year’s numbers with more ice time.  What they didn’t consider is the possibility that Leino’s 53-point output was reflective of what could be expected of him on a yearly basis.  Instead, Darcy Regier felt his prized free agent was more than capable of replicating his dynamic 2010 playoff performance for the next six regular seasons.  It was a tremendous leap of faith, and a blind one, at that.

It’s arguable whether Leino deserves the blistering he’s taking in the press and from the fans.  Some claim Leino’s been dogging it this season, otherwise his production would be much higher.  Indeed, he’s being paid a substantial amount of money to score goals, but is the fact that he’s hasn’t done so thus far a failure on his part, or simply a result of the Sabres setting unrealistic expectations for an average hockey player? 

Leino’s plight is strikingly similar to the one now faced by Montreal’s Scott Gomez.  After signing a seven-year, $51 million dollar contract with the Rangers in 2007, Gomez was expected to put up big numbers for the rest of his career.  It was a huge gamble by Glen Sather, as Gomez had scored more than 19 goals just once in seven full seasons up to that point. 

For the next two seasons, Gomez scored at a pace similar to his first seven years in the league, potting 16 goals in both years with the Blueshirts.  But at a $7 million clip, that total just wasn’t good enough.  New York was able to find a sucker in the Canadiens, who decided to take on Gomez’ massive contract, hoping he’d be able to re-gain a scoring touch he never had by playing alongside his former Devil teammate Brian Gionta.

Two years later, Scott Gomez has continued to play average hockey.  In fact, his production took a frightening dip last season.  After posting a career-low 38 points, Gomez actually apologized to his team, management, and the fans for his poor showing.  As you read this piece, Gomez is mired in an incredible 47-game goal-scoring drought.  It’s not exactly what Montreal had in mind when they acquired the charming Alaskan.

It’s easy to criticize average players for falling short when lofty expectations are heaped upon them, but the bottom line is the hockey teams that employ those players created those expectations.  Ville Leino has never been a high-scoring centerman, yet the Sabres assumed he would find a way to be that kind of player based on 19 playoff games last spring.  Granted, it’s still early in the season, but Leino will be extremely hard-pressed to match last year’s point total.  And even if he did, suffice it to say that 53-points isn’t worth six-million big ones. 

Sure, high-paid, under-performing players will always lament their scoring problems, but what if, in reality, there is no problem?  It’s a stretch to say Ville Leino isn’t trying, so assuming he’s playing hard, the only reasonable explanation is that he’s just not that good.  That’s not his fault.  You can’t blame an athlete for playing to the best of his ability.  With that said, it’s also unfair to pistol-whip an average player for buckling under the pressure of a pricey contract.  Only the special ones have the ability to handle those expectations.

That’s why they’re great.

Filed in: | Tasca's Take | Permalink
  Tags: buffalo+sabres, montreal+canadiens, scott+gomez, ville+leino

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.