An under-the-radar, almost stealth signing in the quiet days of August might be one of the most important moves the Kings made in the off-season.
First, when they plucked defenseman Christian Ehrhoff from the free-agent market, it looked like an insurance policy in case defenseman Slava Voynov’s return to the ice was delayed. As Voynov’s immigration issues deepened — and culminated in his recent return to Russia — the acquisition of Ehrhoff took on additional significance.
Will the offense-minded Ehrhoff replace the offense-minded Voynov, a top-four defenseman?
“You can’t do that,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said.
After all, Ehrhoff turned 33 in July and suffered two concussions last season when playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, limiting him to 49 games. The 25-year-old Voynov, who entered a no-contest plea in July in connection with a domestic-violence incident, was poised to hit his prime.
“I wouldn’t really go there, say I’m replacing Slava,” Ehrhoff said. “Slava played really great for this club. I’m not the one who is going to compare myself to him. I’m here to bring my game. What they were talking about is bring back the game I played in Vancouver.”
That’s what came through when he first spoke with Sutter. In Sutter’s mind, they weren’t getting the Pittsburgh Ehrhoff or the Buffalo Ehrhoff. They could well be getting the Vancouver Ehrhoff.
That was the slick, puck-moving defenseman who flourished in Vancouver under the system of then-coach Alain Vigneault. Ehrhoff was paired with Alex Edler and got significant power-play time when the Canucks reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.
“When I see Christian, that’s how I see him, as a Canuck,” Sutter said. “I see him and Edler.
“I just believe there is no reason he shouldn’t get back to that. It’s not like he’s miled out. He’s not that far removed from it, and from a team standpoint — a selfish standpoint — we need him to be that. From his standpoint, he’s a proud guy and I think he wants to recapture his game.”
The Kings don’t need him to be Voynov. No one else could quite make that substantial leap forward last season. After the top pair of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin, the rest of the Kings’ defensive corps always felt slightly amiss, the remaining members thrust into bigger, unmanageable roles.
Ehrhoff’s best statistical seasons also were in Vancouver — 44 points in 2009-10 and a career-high 50 points the following season.
Two more members of those Canucks teams are now playing in Southern California — center Ryan Kesler and defenseman Kevin Bieksa are with the rival Anaheim Ducks.
“We were on the same power play,” Kesler said. “He [Ehrhoff] is very good on the power play. I feel like he always got his shot through. They were always tip-able shots, which is important for a D-man on the power play. He’s a smart player, pretty fast, so he’s going to help them.”
That would mean reversing the downward trend following those glory years in Vancouver. Ehrhoff signed a 10-year, $40-million contract with the Buffalo Sabres and his production dropped to five goals and 32 points in 2011-12. The Sabres bought out his contract and he joined the Penguins last season.
“It took me a while to adjust,” Ehrhoff said. “Just because coming from Buffalo, being on the worst team in the league, it was just a different style of how things went, getting that mind-set, being on a competitive team again. It took a while to adjust to that.”
Sutter, from afar, could comprehend the adjustment woes.
“Quite honest, that was not a very good team in Buffalo,” he said. “That’s hard to evaluate. You look at some of those games there and you’re like, ‘I’m not watching that.’ Last year, he went to Pittsburgh. It’s hard to fit in, in a hurry, and then he was hurt a lot. It’s almost like a wash.
“You need those guys who play those 20-plus minutes. Look at our team: Muzz, Drew, Marty [Alec Martinez] are capable of doing that and then hopefully Christian.”
The stop-start nature of recovery from the concussions wore on Ehrhoff in Pittsburgh. He said it helped talking to then teammate Sidney Crosby, who went through many dark days when he missed significant portions of two seasons because of concussions.
“Mentally it’s as tough as a physical injury because you have the uncertainty. ‘When am I going to be back?’ It can take a couple of weeks,” Ehrhoff said. “It can take months for guys. Getting used to that feeling is pretty tough. Every day you come in the room and guys ask you, ‘How are you doing?’ It’s a tough injury, mentally, it wears on you.
“One day you feel OK and a couple of days later you don’t. It’s almost like you feel bad. You start thinking guys might think, ‘Oh this guy is not even hurt.’ That would be the toughest part for a player; you want to be there for your teammates. You have to listen to your body; it’s not something you can play through. It’s definitely the toughest injury I went through.”
Los Angeles represents a fresh chapter for Ehrhoff, his wife and three children. Ehrhoff’s oldest daughter started first grade here, and one of the early surprises was the unseasonably warm weather during training camp.
“My Realtor told me nobody needs air conditioning here, but I think he’s wrong right now,” Ehrhoff said, smiling about the warm temperatures.