Dare I whisper the NHL off-season has…quieted down? A signing, re-signing, hiring, firing or retirement probably happened in the time it took to write this sentence. It's been that kind of summer.
Seriously, though, we've reached the point at which most NHL teams have completed their major personnel moves. We're far enough along that we've completed our standings predictions at the THN office. A few key unrestricted free agents remain out there, though, and one in particular could still shift the power balance in either conference.
Cody Franson? Nope. He's a close second, as he'd be a high-impact signing, but his list of suitors is small. He should command $4.5 million per season at minimum and as much as $6 million. He's a right-handed shot, after all. Too few teams can fit him under the salary cap. Of the 13 with $5 million or more in space, several look like tankers playing for the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft. Franson has declared himself "sick of one-year deals," so a short-term, sign-and-fip-for-picks deal seems out of the question. Other teams who could afford him on paper, such as the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks, have depth charts too jammed with young talent already. The Buffalo Sabres may have the best shot at him, as they're bursting with dollars and supposedly done trying to nosedive. It's a matter of convincing Franson they're ready be competitive.
So while Franson is the best player still out there, the one with the highest potential impact is Mr. Christian Ehrhoff.
Ehrhoff has a bit of a stink on him these days as a result of failing to meet what we now know were unrealistic expectations. He parlayed back-to-back 14-goal seasons and a Stanley Cup final run with the Vancouver Canucks into the infamous 10-year, $40-million deal with the Buffalo Sabres, who bought him out after three mostly miserable years. The offensive explosion never happened last season in Pittsburgh after two concussions limited Ehrhoff to 49 games. But if you strip the expectations away and believe the claim from his camp he's now healthy, you get a top-four defenseman who can move the puck and play at least 20 minutes a night. Better yet, he's likely available on another one-year pact and should cost about 40 percent less than Franson.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have reportedly made a low-ball offer to Ehrhoff "way below the $4 million he made with the Penguins," according to uber-reliable beat writer and THN correspondent Aaron Portzline. It's likely for one year, as Ehrhoff's agent, Rick Curran, expressed that Ehrhoff is at peace with the idea of a short-term contract. Some playoff contender is about to benefit in a big way from it.
The Jackets obviously have the best chance to be that team right now. They possess the only known offer tabled to Ehrhoff. Adding him to a shallow blueline corps alongside Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, David Savard and Ryan Murray would solidify a team already expected to bounce back in a big way this coming season. Given the Jackets (a) made the playoffs the season before last, (b) lost more man games than anyone this past season, (c) ended the year 12-0-1 and (d) traded for Brandon Saad, they have as good a shot as any team to win the Metropolitan Division already. Adding Ehrhoff would greatly increase this team's stock.
Some other contender with a modest chunk of cap space could pull some Price is Right logic, however. "Columbus bids $1? Fine. We'll bid $2." So if Columbus' lowball offer falls around $3 million, does $3.1 million get Ehrhoff? Or how about a two-year deal at a lower price, giving Ehrhoff more stability at age 33?
The Boston Bruins, whom GM Don Sweeney insists are not rebuilding, have $4.76 million in cap space and could fit Ehrhoff much more comfortably under the cap than they could Franson. The New York Islanders should still have enough room if restricted free agent Brock Nelson signs a bridge deal and not a fat long-term pact. Ehrhoff could slide into the departing Lubomir Visnovksy's spot if the Isles decide youngsters Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield need more seasoning. The Los Angeles Kings don't count the suspended Slava Voynov on the cap right now, and there's no guarantee he plays for them again. No team could use him or Franson more.
Ehrhoff's cap hit also stands to be inconsequential enough that one of the playoff-bound teams with little to no cap space – say, Washington or St. Louis – could free up room for him with a single trade. As an example, maybe Washington ships Brooks Laich's $4.5-million price tag to a salary-floor team along with a low draft pick as compensation. Bada bing, bada boom, enough money to ink Ehrhoff as a helluva No. 5 D-man to replace Mike Green.
So while Franson will earn a prettier penny than anyone else still drifting in the free agent desert, Ehrhoff is the man to watch in the coming days and weeks. He could turn a handful of teams from pretenders to contenders.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin