Christian Ehrhoff: The Free Agent Silliness Has Begun Early

NHL Free Agency hasn’t even opened officially yet but we have the first ridiculous contract of the season.  Christian Ehrhoff, the defenseman who all but disappeared in the Stanley Cup Finals for the Vancouver Canucks, has signed a 10 year-$40 Million contract with the Buffalo Sabres.  The deal is very much front-loaded, as he will make $18 million in the first two seasons of the deal, with signing bonuses of $8 M and $5 M in years 1 and 2 respectively, to  go with base salaries of $2 and $3 M (according to Capgeek.com).

The $10 Million Man

Buffalo acquired Ehrhoff’s rights Wednesday after the New York Islanders (who had earlier traded for his rights from the Canucks) could not get Ehrhoff’s name on a contract.  The fact that almost 1/3 of the value of the contract is “signing bonus” will likely allow the Sabres to avoid the circumvention charge that Ilya Kovalchuk‘s initial contract caused last summer.  The final 3 years of the deal carry a $1 M salary, but since the base salary never goes above $4M, that would be deemed a “reasonable” devaluation of salary.  The Kovalchuk contract with New Jersey didn’t include a “signing bonus” and as a result was shot down by the NHL because the drop in salary as the contract concluded was deemed intentional in order to bring the cap hit down.

If this signing is approved, it could really set a trend for top free agents like Brad Richards, who can get a boatload of money up front and still have a low enough base salary to allow for a couple of extra years after he is planning on finishing his career to bring the cap hit down.  At 31, Richards could sign a 12 year deal with a big signing bonus that would take him to age 43, with the last couple of years at a minimal salary.  Not inconceivable, given Recchi, Selanne, Lidstrom and Chelios all played into their 40′s.

The Ehrhoff signing sets a dangerous precedent in allowing deep-pocketed owners an advantage in being able to write a big cheque up front and lock up players for long term with lower cap hits.

Congratulations to the Sabres for getting their guy, and at a decent cap hit to boot.  New ownership has been a blessing for the Buffalo market and the creativity and willingness to write a fat cheque up front got it done.  They also created the new standard for “unofficially” circumventing the cap in the process, and that will likely come into play today and in the coming months.

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Topics: Buffalo Sabres, Christian Ehrhoff, Free Agency 2011, Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Salary Cap Circumvention, Vancouver Canucks

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