Christian Ehrhoff, the high-scoring defenseman who has played in Vancouver for the past two seasons, reportedly signed a 10 year 40 million dollar deal with the Buffalo Sabres. The deal comes as a bit of a surprise. Ehrhoff, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, received an offer from the Canucks that was reported to have been similar to Kevin Bieksa's 5 year 23.3 million dollar contract. Vancouver then traded his rights to the Islanders, who reportedly offered $33 million over 6 years. Finally, New York shipped him to Buffalo, and the Sabres signed him today. It looked like Ehrhoff was intent on testing free agency when he rejected the Islanders' proposal. And yet, Buffalo won him over.
At first glance, the length of Buffalo's contract (10 years) appears to have been the deciding factor. But let's look deeper. According to Bob McKenzie, the contract is broken down as follows: "Year 1: $8M signing bonus, $2M salary; Year 2: $5M SB, $3M sal. That's $18M in 1st 2 yrs, or $15M before puck drops on 12-13 season. Year 3: $4M; Year 4: $4M, Year 5: $4M; Year 6: $4M; Year 7: $3M; Year 8; $1M; Year 9: $1M, Year 10: $1M. Modified NTC. Cap hit=$4M/yr." Hmm, could it be that it wasn't so much the contract length that swayed Ehrhoff as it was the 18 million he'll be raking in over the next two seasons?
Ehrhoff will earn 92.5% of the contract's total value in the first 70% of its duration. His average salary in the first 7 seasons is just under $5.3 million, compared to the 4 million dollar average over the full ten years. He will turn 39 before the 10th and final year of the deal. As a Devils fan who lived through the summer of Kovy, alarms bells are ringing in my head. It's conceivable that Ehrhoff will decide to retire before playing out the full duration of the deal. A 39 year-old Ehrhoff may not want to play another season for a 1 million dollar salary. Alternatively, if the next CBA allows for it, the Sabres can bury a 39 year-old Ehrhoff's contract in the minors. They will save $4 million against the cap, and only owe him $1 million.
Interestingly, this contract does not violate the "Kovy Rules"--the changes to the current CBA agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA following last summer's fiasco. The first rule relates to contracts covering seasons in which the player in question is 41 or older. As previously mentioned, Ehrhoff will be 39 when this contract ends. The second rule says that a player who earns $5.75 million or more in one year of his contract cannot earn less then 1 million in any other year of the deal. If he does, that year's salary is considered to be $1 million for the purposes of cap hit calculation. Ehrhoff will earn more than $5.75 million in the first few years of the deal, but lowest yearly salary in the deal is, not surprisingly, 1 million dollars.
So, what say you? Do you think Ehrhoff's new contract constitutes salary cap circumvention? Is it merely a savvy deal by the Sabres? Does the deal demonstrate that the Kovy rules did not go far enough? Should the next CBA contain additional means of preventing cap circumvention? Should the league abandon the use of average yearly salary as determining the cap hit? Or am I making something out of nothing?