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Penguins need Ehrhoff to replace departed Niskanen

Friday, 08.08.2014 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 30 package: 2014-15

By Wes Crosby - NHL.com Correspondent

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Penguins need Ehrhoff to replace departed Niskanen
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost two stalwart defensemen in free agency and hope the signing of Christian Ehrhoff makes up for the offense they lost, specifically in Matt Niskanen's departure.

Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff had a whirlwind offseason.

After being bought out from his contract with the Buffalo Sabres, the 32-year-old was signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins to a one-year, $4-million contract shortly after free agency opened July 1. Now he enters the 2014-15 season as an instrumental piece to the Penguins' defensive corps.

Pittsburgh was unable to retain defensemen Matt Niskanen, who had a career year in 2013-14 with 10 goals and 46 points, and Brooks Orpik, its most tenured player entering the offseason. Each signed with the Metropolitan-Division rival Washington Capitals, making their losses sting that much more.

But the Penguins shifted their focus away from landing a possible top-six forward in free agency and instead decided to solidify their defense by adding Ehrhoff, who could more than make up for the losses of Niskanen and Orpik.

"For me, definitely, a puck-possession game is huge," Ehrhoff said. "I'm a player who likes to move the puck, get the puck to the forwards quick and tries to be involved in the offense too, and so it would definitely fit my style of play. … When you have [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin on the team, it's pretty obvious you have two of the top players in the game, and especially at the center position it's huge to have two guys like that in the lineup.

"I think the supporting cast is very good too. To me, the defense still looks good too, so I think all around, we have a good lineup and Pittsburgh is always one of the names when you talk about teams that have a chance to win the Cup."

Niskanen was pivotal in the development of 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta in his rookie season. It will most likely be Ehrhoff's responsibility to ensure Maatta avoids a sophomore slump while defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin are paired.

Maatta will benefit from the Penguins adding someone who is strikingly similar to Niskanen, although possibly more consistent throughout his career.

Niskanen's career numbers were bolstered by his offensive output last season, often utilizing his impressive slap shot while on the power play. Ehrhoff brings a similar skill set to Pittsburgh, but has proven its dependency throughout his career.

Ehrhoff has averaged .45 points per game through 692 games. Niskanen has averaged .34 points per game in 491 and that average was below .30 prior to his notable 2013-14 season.

But Niskanen was the better player last season, with four more goals and 13 more points. Ehrhoff is capable of replicating or possibly surpassing the output Niskanen produced with Pittsburgh in 2013-14, but if he doesn't, it is possible the Penguins have taken a step back in terms of offensive production from their blue line.

"We did have a little bit of concern about our defense. We were very fortunate to sign Christian Ehrhoff to fill that void that Niskanen and Orpik left when they went into free agency," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "We feel that our young defensemen can do the same job as a lot of these other defensemen that got signed. But the fact that we could sign a guy like Ehrhoff, that made a big difference.

"Ehrhoff is a player that can play in a lot of situations. … He's in great shape. He's a great team guy and he can really skate."

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