I'll admit, I allowed myself to get convinced that Christian Ehrhoff was going to be a Blue Jacket, or at least that he'd be handed an invitation to try to make the team in training camp. It was never reported as being a done deal, I just figured it made so much sense, how could it not happen?
Of course, Ehrhoff ended up signing with the Kings, with the news coming out right smack in the middle of Cannonfest, no less.
Was I disappointed?
I was, for a couple of reasons.
The first was the reported value of the deal: one year, one-and-a-half million bucks. A proven NHL defenseman, who if healthy (admittedly, a big "if") can produce offense and play top-four minutes, and for just 2.1% of the salary cap? That's a sweetheart deal for any NHL team.
It's an even better deal for a team like the Jackets, who are so close to taking the next step from being a bubble team to being a true contender, yet have found themselves with very little wiggle room financially. General Fanager has the Jackets with about $3.73 million in cap space, though that is before performance bonuses to a handful of players are paid out.
There was talk that the main focus of the offseason was to get better on the blueline. While the defense of the future was certainly improved at the draft, at the NHL level there were no personnel changes. The big move was of course to add RFA forward Brandon Saad, and while this move was terrific for so many reasons, it has made the roster top-heavy. With Saad's new contract, the Jackets were pushed right up against the spending limit.
It seems from afar that the decision to add Saad was made knowing that adding dollars on the blueline would be no longer possible. The front office would therefore be hoping for improvement from within on defense, while the (now very impressive) group of forwards and Vezina-caliber goaltender carried the team.
So I wonder, despite the rumors, was Ehrhoff ever a possibility for the Jackets? After the Saad deal, I think I should have known that the wallet was no longer going to be opened up.
The other reason for disappointment is something I've already mentioned- the roster seems top-heavy and a bit unfinished, with a lot riding on internal improvement. Adding Ehrhoff would have solidified the defense, removing a few question marks.
Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson are known quantities. Every team needs veterans who play big minutes. These guys do that, and score a few points along the way. Health is the big factor here. They need to stay off the IR for the team to have success.
David Savard had a breakout year offensively last season, but his game is not without warts. There's also the possibility the offensive numbers regress, in which case the team is left with an offensive defenseman with average skating who isn't producing. Of course we're all hoping that Savvy's numbers are indicative of continued production.
Dalton Prout and Kevin Connauton shouldn't be relied on for tangible results. When Prout's at his best, he's punishing guys with big hits and dropping the mitts. When Connauton's "on" he's putting up points and using his skating to transition the puck to the forwards. These guys are good players, but lack consistency. These two are a likely third pairing, but if there was room for improvement on the blueline it's here.
The key to the whole thing is of course Ryan Murray. He's the thoroughbred, the golden boy. The injuries have been hard on his development, but the fact remains he can be a stud blueliner. He's in a contract year, so you know he's going to really try to bring it this season, he just absolutely needs to stay healthy. If this team is going to be successful as it's currently constructed, Murray needs to take the next step.
With no Ehrhoff to stabilize the group, Murray needs to arrive, while the likes of Prout and Connauton need to find consistency. There are wildcards like Cody Goloubef, Michael Paliotta, Andrew Bodnarchuk or Austin Madaisky who may take a big step, but until then the roster would have looked a whole lot more solid with another proven veteran in there.
Despite my initial disappointment with the Ehrhoff news, I've quickly moved on. I've made the realization that the money was likely never there for him post-Saad, and I am confident that there will be internal improvement from the current set of defenders.
We'll know in a few short weeks.