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It was easy to write Christian Ehrhoff's signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer off as a byproduct of a bizarre system.
He had been a compliance buyout for Buffalo, but that appeared to be unrelated to his level of play, which was strong for a $4 million cap hit. Instead it seemed wholly tied to the ridiculous length of the 10-year contract in question, its potential cap recapture penalty should he retire early (he was paid $22 million of a $40 million deal in the first three years), and the fact that the Sabres suddenly and rather judiciously didn't want to pay him until he was 39 even if he did stick around.
As we've seen in the past, guys who get bought out tend to be rather looked down upon by the rest of the league, resulting in them settling for what is by all appearances well less than market value. So his pulling just $4 million from Pittsburgh on a one-year deal came as a bit of a surprise, but struck many as a bargain.
The actual performance with the Penguins, though, wasn't anything about which to write home; by most metrics — except goals, because Pittsburgh shot 9.2 percent when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 — Ehrhoff was a detriment to the cause relative to the rest of his team. Now, that comes with a few caveats, the two biggest being the concussions he suffered over the course of the season, limiting him to just 49 games and a tie for a career low in points-per-game (0.29).
The other big caveat is that looking at “relative” numbers where Pittsburgh is concerned is often a problem because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin tend to make everyone else look pretty bad down the lineup. But Ehrhoff got a lot of ice time with both those high-level centers (255-plus minutes with Crosby, and another 221-plus with Malkin), and got mixed results in terms of on-ice impact; Malkin's numbers improved with Ehrhoff on, while Crosby's suffered a little. Of course, you could put either one of those guys out there with the average Puck Daddy reader on the blue line and still get decent-to-good results most of the time — such is their power — so again, tough to judge whether Ehrhoff's season was a good one.
However, the fact that the Penguins didn't seem at all interested in bringing him back and are instead going with a pretty young blue line indicates that they were less than impressed with what they saw, injuries or not. All this in addition to a “mild concussion” suffered at the end of the 2014 season — so that's three concussions less than a year — along with other injuries including he a lower-body injury in December that caused him to miss five games doesn't exactly give one a lot of hope for the future.
But again, the numbers are pretty solid, and going to a team like LA which is similar to Pittsburgh -- in that it has proven possession drivers throughout the lineup -- sure does make a lot of sense for Ehrhoff overall. We've heard all summer long that he was willing to take short money to play for a contender. And while the “willing to” part seems like it's something over which he never really had much control, given that he didn't sign until Aug. 23, that is indeed what he did.
Pittsburgh didn't feel he was worth $4 million and that may be so at the end of the day. War on Ice has his goals above replacement at minus-3.3 — the worst number of his career by far — which cost the Penguins a little more than one point in the standings (about 3.08 goals were worth a single standings point last season). The fact that this is a cumulative stat, and would have brought his number down if he continued to play at the same level for all 82, further damns his performance.
Anyone who has a negative impact on term performance in this way isn't worth having on the roster at all, let alone paying $4 million Pittsburgh cap pool a roster already largely occupied by oversized contracts (Pittsburgh pays Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Rob Scuderi a combined $10.98 million or so, for example). You can't continue to drag the team down like that in a contract year and expect to get re-signed.
So the question for Dean Lombardi was whether he thought Ehrhoff's worst-season-ever was a product of injury, and not of deterioration of skill with age. Ehrhoff is currently 33 and some defensemen just inexplicably stop being good around then; maybe they lose that last fraction of a step they needed to keep up with the pace at a high level, maybe their reaction times are slower. Certainly, concussions don't help the matter in either event.
Further worth examining: Is that fact that he got three concussions in less than a year a byproduct of his having lost a step, or just bad luck? Here are the videos of the two hits that led to concussions last season.
To me it looks as though he just got pushed around on routine plays. Worrisome if you expect him to keep that up in the physical Western Conference. With all that having been said, though, Ehrhoff isn't a guy who should or, with LA at least, would be out on the ice against Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko. His days of being a top-pairing defenseman are over, and likely have been for a while. Even if he was really helping Buffalo for the first two years of that contract, it was still an immense downgrade from his peak performances with Vancouver.
But if you can stuff him in the middle of the lineup — and LA's D-corps certainly allows him to do that — and keep him away from top-level guys, a second-pairing defenseman who can chip in offensively (in theory) is a pretty good gamble.
(Pittsburgh, incidentally, used him in something of a shutdown role; he played borderline top-pairing talent but got some decently tough relative zone starts at 51.9 percent in the attacking end. Pittsburgh on the whole was a little less than 54 percent, so that might have been a little too difficult for him to handle successfully.)
Obviously a lot remains to be seen as to whether Ehrhoff's lost season was a hiccup in an otherwise good career that's admittedly on the downswing, or a sign that he just doesn't have it any more. And given his apparent high susceptibility to concussions, you're taking a decent-sized risk. The fact that he costs just $1.5 million helps ease the pain there because it's below even his diminished potential value — for example, Philadelphia pays Nick Schultz 50 percent more than that for some reason — but it is a risk.
It's not the kind of contract people over which should be taking to the streets to lay palm fronds down before Lombardi, but as late-August middle-of-the-lineup signings go, it seems like a pretty good one. The odds that it isn't seem more related to injury risk than on-ice contribution.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.