The 40 Million Dollar Question

Eleven games into the season, and your Buffalo Sabres are a middling 6-5-0. Last season on this date while they were struggling to a 3-8-2 record, many would have settled for the six wins they have so far. However, 2011-12 is not just any season for the Sabres, especially with all the hype and expectations that have been ushered in with the Pegula ownership.

Some of the big talking points have been discussed by riverssyr in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly earlier in the week. With the team taking their fourth loss in five games against the Flyers Wednesday night, there are plenty of gripes. The presence (or not) of a goaltending controversy between Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth. The apparent mismatch between the Sabres and Ville Leino. The better quality ice at home proving to be no advantage for the Sabres. The failure to close out games by giving up goals late in the game.

But what of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, the prized free-agent acquisition of the summer, scheduled to make a massive $10 million this year (including bonuses), part of a ten-year, forty million remuneration package?

More after the jump.

Ehrhoff has been a contradiction so far. Consider that

Shea Weber

signed a $7.5 million contract to make him the highest paid d-man in the league. While the average cap hit for Ehrhoff balances out to a reasonable $4 million per year, he has not been elite. The expectation from an all-world d-man is that he is responsible in his own zone, brings leadership and grit to the ice as well as providing offense and point both at even-strength and on the power play.

His stat line through eleven games reads 1G and 6A with a +/- of minus 6. Ehrhoff leads all Sabres in time on ice, averaging 24:22 per game, testament to the high regard Lindy Ruff has in him, but the -6 is a big blot on his record. He has a cannon for a shot, and often for the Vancouver Canucks his missiles from right point found their way through to register as goals. In Buffalo though, he has only mustered 20 shots on goal so far, with his solitary goal coming from a fluky deflection for an empty netter. This has even resulted in his demotion to the second PP unit. Before the season started Sabres fans had powerplay visions of Ehrhoff winding up and firing from the blue line with Thomas Vanek screening goalies and cleaning up rebounds. That hasn't materialized.

To compare with the other highest earning d-men this season, Zdeno Chara 1G & 5A, +3, 24:55; Chris Pronger 1G & 6A, +2, 21:02; Dion Phaneuf 2G & 9A, +8, 26:38; Duncan Keith 0G & 6A, +3, 24:57; Brian Campbell 0G & 11A, -2, 26:59; and James Wisniewski 0G & 4A, +2, 28:20. Sheldon Souray is now looking like a steal at just $1.65 million with his 3G & 5A, +8; 20:45.

So, first - should we temper our expectations of Ehrhoff? At current pace he will match his 50-point season from last year. Ehrhoff is a good puckmover coming out of the defensive zone. He will remain a force to be reckoned with in his forays into the offensive zone. However he might not be the clutch d-man we need when trying to hold the lead late in games nor the be person we need on ice to pump up the team when some leadership is required.

Next - how can Ruff make Ehrhoff better? He looks now more like the -12 Sharks player from '08-09 than the +36 Canucks d-man from '09-10. No doubt he will never be the stay-at-home half of any defensive pair, but are his skills best utilized when partnered with Jordan Leopold? How about if he is paired up with Robyn Regehr, who has lived up to his hard-hitting, shot-blocking reputation so far? Also, would Ruff consider going the full-on offensive route by pairing him up with Tyler Myers or even Andrej Sekera, who appears to have matured quite a bit this season? Let's hear your thoughts.