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Up-to-the minute updates and insights from the Red Wings locker room at home and on the road. By Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leino the late-bloomer

TRAVERSE CITY -- In most professions, being 24 years old is a beginning. In hockey, being 24 means you're career is about to pass you by if it hasn't taken flight.

Sidney Crosby has an MVP award and a scoring title on his resume and he's just 21. By the age of 24, Bobby Orr had two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythes, three Hart Trophies and five Norris Trophies.

And it's not just the legends. A late bloomer like Dan Cleary had played in 261 NHL games at the age of 24. Henrik Zetterberg had 140 games of experience by his 24th birthday and Pavel Datsyuk celebrated his 24th as a Stanley Cup champion.

So with no NHL experience, no North American experience and never having been drafted, 24-year-old Ville Leino is a hockey anomaly as he competes for a spot on the Detroit Red Wings' roster.

"It's development," said Detroit assistant general manager Jim Nill. "Everybody develops at different stages. Every player is ready at different times. Who knows what would have happened if we brought Pavel Datsyuk over before he was ready? Would he be the same player?"

Signed by the Red Wings as a free agent in May, Leino is currently fighting for a forward spot on the roster, competing with Darren McCarty, Aaron Downey and Darren Helm among other candidates.

Leino has impressed with his performance at training camp, showing both an offensive flair and defensive responsibility.

"I thought he played very well," said Nill. "He plays our style, puck control. I thought the puck followed him all the time."

Leino blossomed this past season -- his sixth in the Finnish elite league, SM-Liiga -- earning league MVP honors. He was first in the league in assists, second in points and third in goals scored.

Because he hadn't been drafted and his contract with his Finnish club, Jokerit, had expired, Leino became a potential NHL player who would cost the team that signed him no assets.

Five NHL teams wooed Leino, including the Red Wings. Going on at the same time was the wooing of Swedish star Fabian Brunnstrom, a process that had a much higher media profile than that of Leino.

Brunnstrom made the Red Wings one of his three finalists, taking in the team's second-round playoff series clinching win in Denver. By that time, Leino had already visited Detroit and seen the Red Wings beat the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena.

"I saw a team that was excellent," said Leino. "And I really liked the organization, first-class, and (general manager) Ken Holland. You always have to weigh the good and the bad and there was obviously not as much opportunity to make this lineup, but it's such a good organization."

Two days after Brunnstrom announced that he was signing with Dallas, Leino inked a deal with the Red Wings.

"I like that they play a style that I'm used to, puck possession," said Leino. "They play a European type of game."

For a 24-year-old who has spent his entire career in Europe, Leino has adapted well to the North American game in training camp. The rinks are smaller her than in Finland and there's a heavier emphasis on shooting.

But of all the major European hockey nations, Finland's brand of hockey is likely the most comparable to that of the NHL.

"If you look at leagues over in Europe, Finland might be the closest to the NHL in type of game, being physical and a little more end-to-end," said Red Wing Valtteri Filppula, a native of Finland. "In Sweden, it's more of a puck possession game. But still, there's more room in Finland than the NHL. I felt that (at first). A lot of times here, you're in a better position to shoot than you think. Some turns you make, you think you have more room, but the boards are closer. It's going to take a while for him to get used to."

Leino cleared his first hurdle so far, making the first training camp cuts and landing on one of the Red Wings' two preseason squads -- Team Howe. He has been skating in camp with two of his competitors for a roster spot, Downey and Helm.

"(Leino) is a heck of a competitor … he probably led the league in practice fights,” Leino's coach in Finland, former Red Wing Doug Shedden told redwingscentral.com. β€œHe loves to come to the rink, he loves to practice, he loves to put his equipment on and compete.”

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