This is a series counting down the top-10 pending UFAs. It will be posted across the Nation Network over the next month! Enjoy!
When Christian Ehrhoff signed a ten year contract with the Buffalo Sabres in June of 2011, a lot of people were puzzled, and a little annoyed. Why was the NHL allowing these long-term, front-loaded contracts? Why was a 28 year old signing one that he would theoretically be able to play through? Why, even with the scheme, did such a talented player take so little without testing the market, from a team he became part of just hours before?
Fast forward to today. This would theoretically be the end of year four, but the Sabres are about a year removed from buying out the middle-aged German. Not only that, but the Pittsburgh Penguins, his new team, feel inclined to go with other internal options, meaning Ehrhoff will suit up for his third team in as many years.
Thanks to a string of three consecutive 40+ point seasons between 2008/09 and 2010/11, Ehrhoff is seen by many to be a reliable offensive presence from the point. So when Ehrhoff managed just 33 points in 79 games and his lowest even strength production rate in half a decade, it was of little surprise to see interest in him dry up.
This year, things trended back in the right direction, as he picked up three goals and eight assists in a little over 825 minutes at 5-on-5. This isn’t a gigantic leap forward; in fact, an extra goal last year probably evens things out. But it was still something, and it made him one of Pittsburgh’s most productive even strength defencemen with substansial minutes played.
That’s about as far as the positives go, however. Despite being known as a relatively steady play-driver throughout his career, Ehrhoff had his first season with team-relative possesion numbers in the relatives, and spent very little time on Pittsburgh’s powerplay and penalty kill. His 2:03 minutes per game on the powerplay were the lowest he’s ever played since 2007/08, and a far cry from the three and a half he managed with the Sabres. This, combined with a string of head and upper body injuries that lead to him playing only seven games after January 28th, culminated in him picking up just fourteen points, his lowest total in eleven years.
Needless to say, while he hasn’t fallen off the cliff, this is a player coming into free agency at a career crossroads. It’s hard to say whether he’s hit a bump in the road, or is en route to his decline.
Ehrhoff’s injuries make this one a gigantic wildcard. It’s hard to bet against a guy whose worst years still put him in the upper half of the league, is capable of logging minutes on both sides of your special teams, can pass a puck like few others, and is generally capable of controlling the flow of the game.
On the other hand, we’re talking about a player who suffered two confirmed concussions this year. You can blame 2013/14 on the Sabres being comically bad, and last year’s production through the first half of the year on a lack of powerplay time and chemistry with new teammates, but traumatic head injuries have the potential to drastically change your ability to play the game.
If he comes back healthy, it’s safe to assume that a team will get a player who will pick up about 0.8 points per sixty even strength minutes, be able to play five combined minutes a night on the powerplay and penalty kill, and boost the possession of an average team by a percentage point or two while he’s on the ice, at least for another year or two. But that’s an extremely big if.
A healthy Christian Ehrhoff likely picks up his most lucrative per-year contract of his career. Johnny Boychuk (2015), Jay Bouwmeester (2014), and Tobias Enstrom (2012) are examples of middle-aged players who were retained by their existing teams in the $5.4-6 million range while putting up similar all around numbers, and sharing similar on-ice character traits. With that said, all three had a few years in hand when they signed, but that’s off-set by the idea of hitting unrestricted free agency.
However, the risk factor and the surplus of high quality defencemen on the market this offseason screams a “put up or shut up” scenario for the soon to be 33-year old. His likely suitor will be a lower-tier team looking for an affordable potential asset to flip at the deadline if they exceed expectations; you know, like the Buffalo Sabres. Wouldn’t that be something?