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Ehrhoff embracing fresh start with Penguins

by Mike G. Morreale

It wasn't too long after the initial shock subsided of being told he was about to be bought out by the Buffalo Sabres that Christian Ehrhoff began gearing up for a fresh start.

He got that chance two days later after free agency began on July 1 when the Pittsburgh Penguins signed the 32-year-old veteran defenseman to a one-year contract worth a reported $4 million.

"When I first got news of the buyout, I couldn't really believe it but then again I wasn't really satisfied with how things went the last couple of years in Buffalo, especially last season when finishing dead last in the League was very frustrating," Ehrhoff said.

It wasn't supposed to come to this; the Sabres had signed Ehrhoff to a 10-year contract worth a reported $40 million in June 2011. He led Buffalo defensemen with 27 assists and 33 points last season.

"It just wasn't working out and when [the Sabres] hit the reset button and began going through a full rebuild mode, I knew it would take a while to turn things around so it was definitely not the situation I signed up for when I did sign three years ago," Ehrhoff said. "But it ended up being what it is and, for me, I'm just happy to be on a very competitive team."

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford didn't waste any time conversing with Ehrhoff's agent, Rick Curran, the moment he learned of his availability.

Ehrhoff immediately thought of two players when Curran informed him that the Penguins were very interested in his services.

"[Sidney Crosby] and [Evgeni Malkin] were a big part of my decision to sign with Pittsburgh," Ehrhoff said. "They are two of the best players in the League, especially at the center position which is so big. They were two big reasons why I signed. The Penguins are also one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference every year. They are one of the teams that always has a shot [at the Stanley Cup]."

The Penguins were in need of some veterans along the blue line since Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik each had signed free-agent contracts with the Washington Capitals.

"The length of the deal wasn't one of my concerns; again, that didn't work out that well for me in Buffalo," Ehrhoff said. "I'm not really concerned beyond this season and my focus is helping the team have some success right now."

Ehrhoff seems to be doing just that. Following a slow start, he is playing the way management envisioned. He scored his 15th game-winning goal on Dec. 6 , the most among defensemen since 2009-10.

"I think the first few weeks was just [Ehrhoff] getting acclimated to everything and now we're starting to see the player that we feel can really have an impact on our group and not just by the goal he scored," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "Just the way he's been finishing plays and the way he's been defending and moving the puck.

"We want to be a puck-moving team from the back end and escape our zone quick and he's done a really good job with that."

Penguins defenseman Simon Despres appreciates what Ehrhoff has added to the blue line.

"He has a lot of experience and skates well with the puck," Despres said. "He sees the ice well and brings that veteran presence in the locker room. He's been a welcomed addition."

Ehrhoff admits there was a transition period entering Pittsburgh from Buffalo.

"It took me a while to get back to playing the way I knew I could; there's a different mindset in Pittsburgh," he said. "We are expected to win here. In Buffalo it was survival."

He believes a 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 11 was a turning point for him.

"After that game, I felt like I was suddenly playing as my old self again," Ehrhoff said. "It was odd because as a team that was our worst game of the season but maybe I just began to realize that much more what I needed to do to get back on track."

Ehrhoff acknowledged there is not a big difference in the offensive philosophy when either Crosby or Malkin are on the ice. It's basically get them the puck or bust.

"Both of them want the puck in their hands when they are out there," he said. "We definitely try and look for them and try to get it to them as quick as possible. They both see the ice really well so you try to find seams. If they have the puck, they have the ability to find you."

Now in his 11th season, including five seasons with the San Jose Sharks, two with the Vancouver Canucks and three in Buffalo, Ehrhoff has seen a drastic change in the caliber of play of young players entering the League.

"It's a lot more athletic and everyone is in much better shape," he said. "I need to keep up with these kids otherwise the speed and physicality will get the best of you. This has been the case over the past decade or so."


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