The Case for Buying Out Christian Ehrhoff

Many Sabres fans were convinced Tim Murray was going to be one of the busier GM’s in the league during the draft and the days leading up to it; the collection of tradeable assets and desire to move back in to the 1st round made the assertion seem like a no brainer. Despite his best efforts, when the Devils made the final pick of the night Murray had yet to make a move. Although Murray and his staff came away with an impressive haul of new talent to add to an already formidable collection of prospects, many were left wanting.

Then we all woke up on Sunday to the news that Christian Ehrhoff, the last of Darcy Regier’s marquee signings from 2011, was on the way out; a victim of the Sabres’ 2nd amnesty buyout. There have been many opinions shared about the surprising move in the 24 or so hours since the news broke; some feel the move was a good one based on the player’s desire (or lack thereof) to be in the Queen City, while others lamented it was poor use of an asset
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Tim Murray has gone on record stating that Ehrhoff’s attitude and the fear of repercussions from a possible cap recapture penalty (if Ehrhoff were to call it a career prior to his contract ending) played a major role in the decision. I won’t get into whether or not a player’s desire to play for a given team is a plausible reason to buy him out, that’s a different debate for a different day.

Instead let’s focus on a few other aspects. First is the fact that Murray stated he had been thinking about buying out Ehrhoff since he was hired; nearly six months ago. Tim Murray does not strike me as one to make rash decisions, or pull the trigger on something like this on a whim. Every move he makes or doesn’t make is done with his next decision in mind. If this was on his mind so long ago it’s safe to say his next move is already mapped out; let’s see what it is before bemoaning the departure of a defenseman who looked like he wanted to be on the golf course at the Olympic break.

I’d also venture to say that if this was on Murray’s mind so long ago he probably went over every scenario in his head before arriving at his final decision. Among those scenarios was likely the dealing of Ehrhoff to another team. Murray likely did not want to take on salary; he may not have seen any benefit in paying a portion of Ehrhoff’s salary for the next five or six years, then getting smacked with the recapture penalty. While he reportedly didn’t want to be here, Ehrhoff did possess a no trade clause and controlled his destiny. While he wasn’t a huge fan of playing here, my sense is he wasn’t waiving his NTC to go to Winnipeg, Florida, Calgary, Edmonton, or the Islanders. At the end of the year last year, there were only seven teams that could’ve taken on his 4 million dollar salary without giving up at least one roster player, and only one of those teams was a playoff team (Colorado).

Some have argued that if Roberto Luongo was tradeable, how is it that Christian Ehrhoff is unmovable? Let’s first say that Vancouver and Buffalo are in very different stages of a rebuild, with Buffalo being well ahead compared to their expansion cousins. Luongo’s desire to get out of Vancouver far outweighed any desire Ehrhoff may or may not have had when it came to leaving Buffalo; so much so that he accepted a trade to the 2nd worst team in the NHL, and a team that he has a very slim chance of winning a Stanley Cup with by the time he calls it quits. Vancouver also made the decision to take on salary, an option that Tim Murray may not have wanted to explore (as previously mentioned). Luongo’s age made the deal more palatable for Vancouver as well. He’s 35 now, and if he retires in five years at the age of 40 the Canucks will only be penalized a little more than $3 million for three years. Factor in where the Canucks are organizationally (just starting a rebuild, with a farm system in the lower third of the league) and it’s easy to see that the team won’t be in a position where the extra $3 million would go towards the last piece of a championship contender.

As evidenced by few trades that were made at the draft, the trade market just wasn’t what everyone thought it would be. Many of the teams thought to be on the cusp of major franchise makeovers have mostly stood pat. The Sharks have yet to make an Earth shattering move, the Leafs are still one forward line and Jonathan Bernier away from being the Sabres, and the Penguins’ trading of James Neal can hardly be viewed as a franchise overhaul. Add in Tampa Bay giving away Teddy Purcell for what amounted to a 6th round pick and it’s easy to see that the market just wasn’t there. It’s very possible that Murray tried his damnedest to get a package that he thought would outweigh the risks associated with the recapture penalty and just couldn’t find any takers. I can only speak for myself, but if we were hit with the recapture penalty after trading (or hanging onto) Ehrhoff and the only solace I had was the 3rd round draft choice we got in a trade for him, I’d be less than pleased.

It’s safe to say keeping him was also considered. The team is roughly 3 years away from truly competing (in my mind). At that time Ehrhoff would be 35. He’d be a 12 year vet, not counting the year played in Europe during the lockout, the long playoff runs with Vancouver, and an Olympics; he’d have some mileage…and still 4 years left on his contract. Keep in mind three years from now should be the start of several years contending; how much would he have left? There’s also the much talked about recapture penalty. Let’s say he retires with a year left on his deal and the team is hit with the $10 million penalty. The salary cap has gone up 77% in nine years from its original $39 million in 2005-2006 to the current $69 million for 2014-15; or an average of 8.55% per year. Using that average increase the cap would be $112.88 million, and Ehrhoff would take up 8.13% of that when the recapture penalty hits in 2020-21. There are currently 14 defensemen who take up more than 8.13% of their team’s cap space, Duncan Keith is 15th and just under that threshold. Teams are currently paying the best defensemen in the game using that portion of the cap, now you can see why Murray didn’t want to see it wasted on a guy not on his team.

There’s also the need to re-sign players. If Samson Reinhart plays with the big club this year, he will be a six-year vet going into 2020-21. That would be he would be entering his offseason as a restricted free agent, and thus due for a rather large contract. Defensemen such as Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Jake McCabe would potentially also be due new contracts after their last bridge contracts expired or in the first year of new extensions. Add that in with the contracts of Zemgus Girgensons, perhaps another marquee player from the 2015 draft, and the other pieces necessary to be a contender and you can see why Murray wasn’t thrilled with a chunk of his cap space unusable.

Tim Murray has not made one misstep in the short time he has had the general manager’s job in Buffalo. He’s been forthright and honest, had a strong deadline, by all accounts improved the team through the draft, and has the organization in great position for the 2015 draft. In short, he has done everything he has needed to do. It’s possible that buying out Christian Ehrhoff was something else he needed to do; I’m willing to trust him.

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