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Should the Maple Leafs even consider Cody Ceci?

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Nick Kypreos likes the idea, but does it make sense to anyone else?

Ottawa Senators v Toronto Maple Leafs

Cody Ceci, a defenceman on the Ottawa Senators, is one of those players who is famous for being bad in certain circles. He has become the avatar of a certain sort of overrated and overplayed defender and, just lately he has snatched the crown away from Kris Russell as the tall and seemingly ineffective, yet heavily played defenceman who is the most talked about — but not in a good way — player.

To become the king of the bad defenders, derided on Twitter, it helps if you’re on a Canadian team or in a big US market. There are bad defencemen out there on American teams that no one has even heard of beyond that team’s fans. The outsider’s view of a player like Ceci can be skewed by his reputation.

I don’t really know anything about Cody Ceci, to be honest. I do know the Ottawa Senators have been really bad for a really long time, even the year they sniffed the Stanley Cup Final. I also know that defencemen who play a lot of minutes on really bad teams are sometimes not quite as bad as they seem.

So, instead of just carping about how stupid the idea is that the Leafs might be interested in Ceci, I thought I’d give it a serious look.

First a little citation is needed for that assertion that defenders on bad teams are sometimes better than they appear. I’m going to use Evolving Hockey’s GAR/WAR charts to show the careers of some players, and I want to emphasize that in my view, this model does a good, yet imperfect job, of separating the player from his usage or environment, and what we see in results here is sometimes the team dragging him down to their level or raising him up.

The 0 line is a replacement-level player.
Evolving Hockey

For Erik Johnson, once thought to be utterly useless, the rising tide has floated his boat up a little.

For Jack Johnson, he had something going on sometimes in Columbus that he’s never repeated, and even a trade to Pittsburgh barely had an effect.

Ah, Jake, they were the worst of times there for a while.

And now one player who is doing the trick in reverse:

As an aside, Jake Muzzin’s effectiveness is totally static across a really wide range of Kings teams. He just might be the rare guy who is the total driver of his own effectiveness. And that was a really good trade.

Now back to Ceci. He is about the same size as Muzzin, so not an outsized player. Not Shea Weber or Dustin Byfuglien. He is 25, which is young for what’s out there in the market on deadline day, usually. He is a right-shooter, and he plays PK, which is a necessary skill if the Leafs are looking to remove someone like Ron Hainsey or Nikita Zaitsev from the lineup.

Ceci plays the second most ice time on the Senators this year, and you may have noticed they’re particularly bad these days. Bad when measured on the Senators’ scale even. His ice time has been rising year-over-year as the Sens lop good players off the top of their lineup.

They use him on the power play a little, where he shoots too much — way too much — and on the penalty kill, where he has been below his own team average. In general, the Sens are much better without him than with.

However, up until this season, a lot of the without included Erik Karlsson, and it’s interesting that this season Ceci’s PK results are much, much better. But his overall performance, well...

On the Senators right now, he’s much worse than Ron Hainsey is on the Leafs, and worse than Nikita Zaitsev. If you assume he just is what he is as shown, you’d be mad to trade for him.

But could he float up on a rising tide of more appropriate usage and better teammates and end up better than what the Leafs now have? He looks, from his track record and even allowing for the horrible team he’s on, that he’s more Jack Johnson than Erik Johnson. But if a decent team traded for him, they’d get a guy they could play on the third pair and the PK, and he might be a lot better than it seems just from looking at that graph above.

In a rational system that rated players a little more on what they do and a little less on how much they seem like they’ve been sent out from central casting with the right look for the part, he’d go for a very modest price in recognition of his $4.3 million cap hit this season that an acquiring team would have to absorb.

The system isn’t rational, though, and some team might trade for him at an inflated price if they think the thing to judge by is how many minutes a night he plays or how many hits he dishes out. But there is a real possibility that someone in Ottawa is smart enough to realize that Ceci is an RFA with arbitration rights, will have a huge qualifying offer, and that he would be very useful on a big one-year deal to help clear the cap floor next year when the good, big-cap-hit players are all traded away.

For Ceci himself, the salary he has now and his usage is blocking him, perhaps totally, from getting into a position where he can succeed on a good team. It’s a sad irony of hockey, that sometimes when a team overpays a player, they hurt the player’s career as much as themselves.

In conclusion: Cody Ceci, on a good team and not playing over his head, would be worth what you should pay about a million in cap hit for or maybe a third-round pick, given the way deadline rentals are priced. But the Leafs could just keep using Ron Hainsey, and have a high probability of being better off.

Sometimes the bad team defenceman ain’t so bad. This is not one of those times.

Now, how about this guy, if you want to buy a rental who toils away in obscurity: