By Bill Hoppe
Christian Ehrhoff can’t hide from the obvious. Thirty-five games into his 10-year, $40 million contract from the Buffalo Sabres, some of the defenseman’s stats are pretty underwhelming, even downright bad.
He’s a team-worst minus-11, an incredible 39 notches below the gaudy rating he averaged the last two seasons in Vancouver. With his first goal in 14 games Monday and just his third overall, he’s on pace for seven. He tallied 14 in each of the past two seasons.
“The stats are not there where most people expected,” Ehrhoff acknowledged Tuesday inside the Northtown Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt in New Jersey against the Devils. “I don’t really judge myself on my stats.
“But, for me, it’s about trying to play consistent, too. I think I’ve been better at that lately.”
So far, Ehrhoff’s a disappointment, no doubt. Only one NHL player — the Rangers’ Brad Richards, at $12 million — is earning more than the $10 million Ehrhoff’s receiving this season.
Judging the 29-year-old solely on numbers could be foolish, though.
Ehrhoff hasn’t been the impact, franchise defender many expected. But he’s still contributing — logging big minutes while anchoring the blue line.
Plus-minus can be deceiving. Defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani’s a plus-11, seven ahead of his closest teammate. Yet a series of ill-timed gaffes and some erratic play has made the rookie a healthy scratch three straight games. Ehrhoff, despite his awful rating, is skating a team-high 24:01 each night.
“I’m not happy with the plus-minus rating. For sure, I’d like to have some more goals,” said Ehrhoff, who’s a minus-7 this month. “All I can do is try to shoot the puck and play a solid game and hopefully it’ll be a little better in the stats (department).”
With a broken wrist sidelining defenseman Tyler Myers, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has increased the slick German’s duties. Ehrhoff played at least 25 minutes over a recent nine-game stretch, including a whopping 32:48 on Nov. 28.
“We’ve asked a lot. With Myers out, we’ve ramped up some of his penalty killing time,” Ruff said. “We’ve played him in situations against top lines maybe we stayed away from early in the year. I think overall he’s been in on the play. He’s logged some big minutes some nights. I think there’s always room for improvement.”
Ehrhoff enjoys the extra minutes, saying it allows him to get on a roll. The nights, which few defensemen can handle, have yielded mixed results, however.
“There are some players that are capable of playing big minutes and playing well,” Ruff said. “You look at (former Sabres defenseman) Brian Campbell. Once he got up and running, when he plays big minutes, he plays well. There’s a couple other defensemen around the league that have to skate almost every other shift.
“I think in our case, when Myers went out, we ramped up. There’s some games I really liked. There’s some I thought the minutes were too much.”
Nonetheless, Ehrhoff’s feeling more comfortable and moving better — a sign he’s getting back to his old self.
“When I move my feet and I’m involved in the play, that’s when I’m most comfortable and that’s when I feel like I’m on top of my game,” Ehrhoff said.
Ehrhoff’s 17 points have him on pace for 40, close to the 45 he’s averaged the past three seasons.
But why are the goals down?
Teams have focused on Ehrhoff’s wicked shot, which probably ranks among the league’s five or 10 best. He’s had trouble blasting power-play one-timers from the point.
He scored a nifty even-strength goal in Monday’s 4-2 win over Washington, putting a laser into the far corner after gliding from the right point to the near circle. It looked like he took the shot at half-speed.
“It is about quick shot, quick movement, not waiting too long,” Ruff said. “I think in some situations on the power play maybe he’s hung on just a little bit too long looking for something better. He’s got a great shot. Teams key on it. They try to stay in his lane.
“Sometimes he just has to move it around that person and try to open other people up.”
Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe (concussion) passed his baseline test and practiced in a non-contact role Tuesday. His workload will be upped today, Ruff said.