With their second and final compliance buyout, the Buffalo Sabres have decided to part ways with veteran defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff becomes an unrestricted free agent while the Sabres are free from his giant contract.
After a difficult season in Buffalo, Ehrhoff expressed his desire to move on from the Buffalo Sabres. Ehrhoff signed a ten year, $40 million contract during the summer of 2011. At that time, there was a renewed sense of optimism in Buffalo after Terry Pegula took over as owner of the Sabres.
When he took control of the club, Pegula declared that the Sabres’ sole purpose was to win a championship. Pegula said he would provide the resources to make this dream a reality. The new owner was true to his word in the summer of 2011 when former GM Darcy Regier spent big money on blue-liner Christian Ehrhoff among others. Despite the big splashes, it became clear that the Sabres were not built to win a championship and the club is currently in the midst of a rebuild under new GM Tim Murray.
The landscape in Buffalo has changed since Ehrhoff signed his monster contract but that is not to say that the club has strayed from the goal of winning a championship. Under new GM Tim Murray, the club has amassed an impressive array of draft picks to add to its young arsenal of talent. Many new faces were introduced to the organizational depth charts this past weekend after the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia and the club looks to continue to build towards the future.
After last season’s difficulties and while moving towards perhaps another difficult year, Ehrhoff decided that he didn’t want to be a part of the club’s future. Tim Murray and the Sabres have decided to move on by pursuing a compliance buyout. This is the second and final compliance buyout that the Sabres can use. The club used their first earlier this month on former Sabres’ forward Ville Leino.
With Ehrhoff gone, the Sabres have an additional roster spot for a young defenseman or a free agent veteran. Tim Murray also finds himself with even more cap space to work with that will allow him to further reshape the roster as the club builds for the future.
Revisiting Ehrhoff’s Tenure in Buffalo
Christian Ehrhoff came to the Sabres in the summer of 2011. At that time, Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula wanted to bring in players to help his newly purchased club win its first championship in the near term. Darcy Regier targeted Ehrhoff and brought him to Buffalo but the dreams of winning a championship did not come to fruition.
The veteran was drafted by the San Jose Sharks where he spent four seasons before being traded to the Vancouver Canucks. Ehrhoff’s first year in Vancouver was solid and he had an especially strong year in Vancouver during the 2010-2011 season. That year, the offensive defenseman netted fourteen goals and thirty-six assists in seventy-nine regular season games. He played a big part in the Vancouver Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals where his club ultimately fell short to the Boston Bruins.
After the 2010-2011 season, Ehrhoff’s free agent value was high and it became clear that the defenseman wanted to enter into free agency. The New York Islanders tried to be proactive in acquiring the free agent. The Islanders traded a fourth round draft pick to the Vancouver Canucks for Ehrhoff’s negotiating rights prior to the start of free agency. The club’s negotiations with the defenseman went sour so the Islanders decided to trade his rights to the Buffalo Sabres for a conditional seventh round pick.
Former GM Darcy Regier was able to negotiate a contract with Ehrhoff and the deal shocked many hockey fans and analysts. The contract was a ten year, $40 million contract which paid the veteran $10 million during the 2011-2012 season and $8 million during the 2012-2013 season. While these large payments were made during the first two years, the overall cap hit on the life of Ehrhoff’s massive contract was just $4 million. The big splashes showed that Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula was true to his word but Darcy Regier failed to use these newly-found resources to construct a championship-caliber roster.
Christian Ehrhoff found some success in Buffalo but he never reached the numbers that he had in Vancouver. The Sabres roster did not compare to that of Vancouver’s 2010-2011 squad so it stands to reason that Ehrhoff’s stats weren’t as strong. Ehrhoff scored five goals and twenty-seven assists with the Sabres during the 2011-2012 season. He also put up respectable numbers during the lockout-shortened season where he managed five goals and seventeen assists in forty-seven games.
The Sabres had a historically poor 2013-2014 season. Despite not much of a supporting case, Ehrhoff put up somewhat respectable numbers scoring six goals and twenty-seven assists while appearing in seventy-nine games. He finished fourth on the Sabres in points behind forwards Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. On a bad team, perhaps his worst statistic was his +/- numbers where Ehrhoff finished with a -27. This was the second worst on the Sabres but, to put the club’s season in perspective, nearly all of the Sabres finished the year with negative +/- statistic.
Why the Sabres Bought Out Ehrhoff
After a difficult season in Buffalo, Ehrhoff decided that he did not want to be a part of the club’s future and GM Tim Murray decided it was time to move on. With the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NHL instituted salary cap recapture penalties for contracts that it considers to be circumventing the salary cap rules. Ehrhoff’s contract had the potential to be penalized if Ehrhoff retired before the end of the term so this made trading him very difficult.
At the end of the 2013-2014 season Ehrhoff had seven years remaining on his contract. If the defenseman retired at any point before the end of his deal then it would initiate a cap recapture penalty. Capgeek.com has breakdown of these cap recapture penalties here.
Ehrhoff’s contract also included a no trade clause. The no trade clause coupled with possible salary cap recapture penalties made trading the veteran very difficult. In response, Sabres GM Tim Murray decided to put Ehrhoff on waivers. When the defenseman declined waivers, Buffalo had the option to submit the paperwork for a compliance buyout.
The veteran was a valuable piece on a bad team. Tim Murray’s use of a compliance buyout on Ehrhoff is being met with mixed reviews. It will take time to see whether or not this was a good decision for the Sabres. However, an immediate effect of this decision is that the Sabres are free from Ehrhoff’s gigantic contract and that puts the club in an interesting situation in the near-term.
What Ehrhoff’s Compliance Buyout Means for the Sabres
According to Capgeek.com, with Ehrhoff’s salary off the books in Buffalo, the Sabres now have more than $20 million in cap space that the team needs to spend in order to reach the salary cap floor for next season. If the club were to spend to the cap, which is highly unlikely, the Sabres would need to spend more than $38 million. What this boils down to is the fact that the Sabres will be an interesting team to watch during the offseason.
Some of the $20 million in space will be likely spent on restricted free agents such as forwards Tyler Ennis, Cory Conacher, Marcus Foligno among others. There are also many pending unrestricted free agents that are on the Buffalo Sabres radar.
It appears that another challenging season is on the horizon for the Sabres, seemingly by design, but as the organization continues down the path of rebuilding it has a very bright future. This future might be attractive to some pending free agents. Other free agents will want to sign with a contender so a contract in Buffalo might be a tough sell. It will be Tim Murray’s job to navigate these waters to ensure that the Sabres reach the salary cap floor with a team that keeps the fans engaged.
One interesting option that the Sabres have at their disposal to reach the salary cap floor is to take on another club’s unwanted contracts via trade. The Sabres do not have any more compliance buyouts because they used them on forward Ville Leino and now on defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. However, Buffalo has a lot of cap space so it can offer other NHL clubs the option to trade away an unwanted player and his contract for cap relief. The Sabres could choose to have these players with pricey contacts play for them next year or use a non-compliance buyout and have their salary count against the cap.
Tim Murray could enter into a trade of this sort in exchange for draft picks. If Murray can make a deal like this happen, it will be a win-win situation for both the Sabres and the other team involved in the trade . The Sabres would bring in more assets to help in the rebuilding process. Many analysts peg the 2015 NHL Draft to be very deep on young talent. If the Sabres can add to their impressive stockpile of 2015 picks then the club will have even more opportunity to remake itself into a contender.
Teams freeing up cap space would also benefit. According to CapGeek, the top five teams with the least amount of cap room are the Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning. Each of these teams qualified for the playoffs last season and will be looking to add to their rosters in the hopes of winning a championship next season. Additional cap space will allow each of these teams to augment their rosters.
Tim Murray’s use of a compliance buyout on defenseman Christian Ehrhoff comes as a surprise to many hockey fans. The club is parting with one of their best players on the current roster and it doesn’t improve the club heading into next season. The move will come with mixed reviews in the near-term and it will take time in order to evaluate the long-term impact. However, the Sabres are immediately freed from any possible penalties that could have come as a result of Ehrhoff’s contract. They also have many options to consider as the club approaches free agency.
The next season of Sabres hockey may prove to be another difficult one but this is by design. With highly coveted prospects such as forwards Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel available during next year’s draft, the Sabres could find themselves in a position to draft one of these prospects next summer. The immediate future will be challenging but Buffalo’s future seems very bright.
Terry Pegula has not publicly changed his stance that the purpose of the Sabres is to win a championship. It might not seem that a championship is possible given the results of last year and the current circumstances surrounding the forthcoming season. However, with GM Tim Murray at the helm it seems the organization is heading in the right direction. It will take time to be able to evaluate Murray’s decisions but as it stands today, there is a lot to like about the future of the Buffalo Sabres.