June 29 2014 10:40AM
It's not often that the solution to one of your key problems lands into your lap, and this morning, that very scenario just happened. The Buffalo Sabres have used one of their two compliance buyouts on defenceman and alternate captain Christian Ehrhoff, which means he will hit unrestricted free agency on Tuesday. But is he somebody the Leafs should pick up?
Yes, Yes, Also Yes
Make no mistake, Ehrhoff is a case of a real deal defenceman who plays on an awful, awful team.
Offensively, he's not an absolute juggernaut, but he gets the job done. Over the past three seasons, 109 players have played 2500 even strength minutes. Of those, Ehrhoff is 37th place in points per 60, with 0.79 (also notable, Cody Franson at 9, Tim Gleason at 95, Roman Polak at 99). He makes up for being just "quite good" on the powerplay however, something he particularly showed in Vancouver as their powerplay quarterback in 2009/10 and 2010/11 - years where he finished 9th and 8th in Norris voting.
His possession game is also better than his team implies. His 46% CF percentage this season looks sketchy, but the Sabres were such a hot mess this year that they made the Leafs almost look okay in that regard. In reality, he was 4.8% above the Sabres average, following 50.1 (+8.1) and 49.8 (+1.1) seasons. On top of this, the Sabres tend to score much more with him on the ice (+7.3 and +9.1 GF% rel in the past two years), despite him getting relatively average zone starts and having below average on-ice shooting percentages (6.7 and 7.5%, with league average being around 8.5).
The one possible area of skepticism is who he matches up against. Of 143 full time (62+ GP) defencemen this year, Ehrhoff was 72nd in Quality of Competition (based on ice time), making him the league median. He also ranked 101st in Quality of Teammates. Going further into those teammates, his most regular partner was Mark Pysyk, who split his season between Buffalo and Rochester. Not exactly the best situation to be in.
Beyond the numbers, Ehrhoff is a smart defenceman on both sides of the ice. He's capable of good positioning, can get physical when absolutely necessary, knows how to make a good first pass, and can help on the powerplay. He's exactly what the Leafs need next to Dion Phaneuf for the next couple of years while Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly hit the second gear in their development.
If He's So Good, Why Was He Bought Out?
Also known as the Mikhail Grabovski argument, a compliance buyout doesn't necessarily mean that a player has no value. In Toronto's case, a very obvious (and possibly coach driven) off year meant that Grabovski's deal was not an easy one to move without getting salary back on short notice, and, whether you agree with it or not, the Leafs needed that money immediately to pursue Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson.
Ehrhoff is a similar situation, for different reasons. If the Buffalo Sabres wanted to, they could have easily picked up some assets for the 31 year old German. He's put up solid numbers and was signed to a deal that paid him just $4 million per season for the next seven years, which for all intents and purposes is a filthy steal. But, with the new structure of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are penalties when a player with a long term, front loaded deal retires early, and they go to the team that initially signed him. For example, Vancouver is crossing their fingers that Roberto Luongo somehow stays in the NHL until days after his 43rd birthday.
The Sabres are very clearly in a long-term rebuilding phase, picking up draft picks like a psychotic child playing Be a GM mode in NHL 14, giving lots of ice time to youth, and unofficially beginning to tank for a chance at Connor McDavid. This means a couple of things: having a player like Ehrhoff is going to be counter-intuitive to being bad next season, and that this team is going to be loaded with young players needing new contracts in the next few years. As well, owner Terry Pegula is committed to running a cap ceiling team when he expects his club to win.
With all of this considered, the absolute worst case scenario for the Buffalo Sabres is to be put over the salary cap by a player who doesn't play for anybody when they need they're competing or close to competing for the Stanley Cup. Look at the mess the Boston Bruins are wading through right now with Jarome Iginla's performance bonuses (a 4M+ cap penalty next year). Getting nothing for Ehrhoff sucks now, but its the safest option for Buffalo's long-term success moving forward.
Do The Leafs Go After Him?
I would hope so. Dave Nonis sounded pretty happy with his defence core after acquring Roman Polak yesterday, but there's a stark difference between these two players. I wouldn't even be against flipping Polak immediately to make some cap and roster room, if it came to that. Getting Tim Gleason off the books would probably be in Toronto's favour as well, but that may be significantly harder, possibly even requiring a standard buyout.
As for Ehrhoff's cost, I have to imagine he'll be in the $5-5.5M range if you're looking for a 2-4 year deal. He could go higher, but I have a feeling that some GM's will feel there are other reasons behind the buyout and be scared of his -27 plus/minus (which I'd like to call a 'Buffalo tax'). With no assets required to be given up, and the potential to still get him at market dollar value, this is the ideal target for a team that desperately needs a player like this. At that point, the focus can then shift entirely to the mythical number once centre.