Comments / New

2014 NHL Free Agency: Buffalo Sabres Buyout Christian Ehrhoff; Right Fit For Dallas Stars?

Three years ago this summer the Buffalo Sabres were on a mission. A new owner had reinvigorated the franchise with a focus of rebuilding a proud but struggling franchise and Buffalo suddenly became very big players on the expensive free agent market. Two of the biggest signings of that summer were forward Ville Leino and Christrian Ehrhoff, two good players on the open market in their prime (Leino was just 27 at the time, Ehrhoff was 28) yet who everyone agreed were signed to outrageously expensive contracts neither would ever be capable of living up to.

Three years later, neither player remains with the team. Just a few days after the Sabres exercised their compliance buyout for the final three years of Leino’s contract, Buffalo has done the same with Ehrhoff and the final seven years of his contract. The 31-year old defenseman (who will be 32 when the season begins) suddenly becomes the best defenseman on the free agent market and the Buffalo Sabres suddenly become a team that will take your tired, hungry and overpaid just to get back to the cap floor.

Both of these scenarios interest the Dallas Stars very much.

It’s no secret the Stars have been searching for improvements on defense, like many other teams, for quite some time. The organization has taken these issue head-on through the draft, both in the past and just this weekend, and has done a remarkable job of rebuilding the defensive depth in the system rather quickly — with more than a few very promising young blueliners ready to make the jump to the NHL in the next few seasons.

Yet there is no guarantee of success when turning to youth, and the Stars like many other teams, would love to have a player like Ehrhoff’s caliber and ability — especially when it comes to moving the puck and producing on the power play. It’s also important to note that despite playing for one heck of a bad team for most of those three years, Ehrhoff — unlike Leino — didn’t see his level of play completely fall off of the cliff and he remains a very good defenseman for any team looking for a top pairing option.

So why did the Sabres buy Ehrhoff out, if he wasn’t part of the problem? Ehrhoff had seven years remaining on a ten-year, $40 million contract that made him untradeable for a team that is diving head-first into rebuilding mode. Ehrhoff’s contract was ridiculously back-loaded and because of the cap-recapture rules, should he retire before the end of his contract the Sabres would have been hit with massive cap penalties years after trading him away. Combine that with the fact that Ehrhoff had no interest in being part of a rebuild, and the buyout was a decision that had to be made.

“The fact that he quite frankly doesn’t want to be here makes it easy,” Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray told the Buffalo News.. “I’ve said at the start that if you don’t want to be here we’ll make it happen. He’s made I believe $22 million in three years and feels that we’re not going in the right direction, but he really hasn’t had much part in the direction the team has gone. So time to move on.”

Ehrhoff’s point production the past few years was nowhere near the level it was while in Vancouver, although he remains of the most productive defensemen on the power play the past five seasons even while playing in Buffalo. We should point out that Sergei Gonchar is higher than Ehrhoff on this list, although we all saw just how quickly Gonchar fell of his own cliff this past season.

So, how do the Dallas Stars fit into this equation?

For one, Ehrhoff would be that top pairing, minutes-eating defenseman the Stars have been looking for these past few years. Ehrhoff has good size and is good in both ends of the ice but certainly leans more towards being a puck-moving defenseman with offensive ability, although he’s more well-rounded than most of the defensemen the Stars have in the NHL. The Dallas Stars would benefit tremendously from his addition to the roster, especially for this coming season, and any other year would almost certainly be at the top of the list of teams vying for his services.

The issue is that the Stars seemed to have changed their focus a bit this summer and while Jim Nill has stated he’s always on the lookout for that perfect fit on defense, the Stars are working on shoring up the forward unit while going with the plan of reinforcing the defense from within. This makes it unclear whether the Stars would be more willing to abandon that plan now that Ehrhoff has become available, however, especially given that Ehrhoff would fill the role for the next few years that the team is hoping one of the younger players will step up into.

On top of that, the emergence of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley the second half of last season has apparently given the Stars more confidence in their own defensive unit moving forward and in the postseason both players played the minutes and role that Ehrhoff would — and they wouldn’t be blocking the progression of several young defensemen either.

That’s the issue with this scenario: The Stars simply have too many defensemen that are set to be in the NHL next season. The Stars have five defensemen under NHL contract (Gonchar, Goligoski, Daley, Benn, Connauton) with Dillon an RFA, and Patrik Nemeth and John Klingberg also likely to push for NHL time out of camp next season.

As it stands, the Stars are already working hard at trading Sergei Gonchar to free up a spot for the young players — would the option of signing Ehrhoff and allowing the younger players to not be pushed as quickly be more valuable in the short- and long-term for the Stars?

Ehrhoff is a good, valuable defenseman but now he’s the hottest defenseman free agent on the market. While he won’t command nearly the contract he had in Buffalo, the term will once again be something the Stars are not interested in — it seems that Nill is very wary of signing a player around 30 to a six or seven-year contract — what about a four or five-year deal, however?

Once again, however, the Dallas Stars would find themselves right in the thick of a bidding war with some of the bigger players in the NHL. The Maple Leafs will almost certainly be interested, and after three years of struggling in Buffalo you can be guaranteed that Ehrhoff will want to go somewhere that he is almost positive the team is going to be contending or at least heading in the right direction. Do the Stars fit that description just yet?

How about the fact that Ehrhoff is a left-handed shot, which would make an inbalanced defense even more so. Who would play on the right side?

The Lindy Ruff factor cannot be overlooked, either. Ehrhoff played under Ruff for most of two seasons after signing in Buffalo, two disastrous seasons that saw Ruff eventually fired (although many state the decline wasn’t all the coach’s fault) and the GM eventually fired as well. Would the defenseman still want to play under Ruff and more importantly, how does Ruff feel about Ehrhoff? These are issues that are tough to quantify.

Are the Stars going to be willing to get into a bidding war over term with a defenseman while wanting some young players to move up soon? After all, that’s why Aaron Rome was bought out and why Sergei Gonchar will likely be traded as well. What’s the short- vs. long-term gain?

There’s also the issue of Gonchar and his contract and roster spot. The Stars are likely trying to trade him as best they can to the East, and suddenly there’s a team desperate to get to the salary cap floor that’s willing to take on the bad contracts that teams need to discard.

Hey Buffalo, Gonchar is available…

Ultimately, while Ehrhoff would be a great fit for the Stars I wonder about the motivation to continue to look outside the organziation rather than building from within, plus whether the Stars will once again be outclassed in a league-wide bidding war.

And that’s okay.