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Let’s Talk Ourselves Into Cody Ceci!

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God help me!

NHL: APR 06 Blue Jackets at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kyle Dubas has made a flurry of significant and less significant moves this offseason, remodeling both the Leafs’ bottom six and right side of the defence group. Most of these moves have been lauded by the more stat-minded side of the Toronto fanbase. And also, he traded for Cody Ceci and then extended him.

Trading for Cody Ceci clearly made sense—the Leafs were unloading the Nikita Zaitsev contract, which runs at $4.5M per for this season and four more after it. Even if you think Cody Ceci is a blight on all that is holy and just, if a year of him is the price to unload the worst term contract on the team, well, you can live with it.

But the Leafs haven’t yet pursued any of the clever schemes people thought of to dispose of his contract. In fact, they’ve extended him for one year at $4.5M, and they have talked consistently as if they plan to play him. Probably in the top four.

Ruh roh!

Why Do People Think Cody Ceci Is So Bad?

If you are one of those people who likes Corsi, which includes most of us, Cody Ceci has posted a CF% above 44 (!) once in the past four years, and it’s been worse than his teammates to varying degrees every year. The last time the team allowed fewer goals with him on the ice than off it was 2015-16.

Now, these are the kinds of numbers we used to get all hot and bothered about a few years back, but the science has moved on a little bit, and bright lights of the hockey community have tried to create all-in-one looks at players. I’m sure Cody Ceci looks better under those m—

With gratitude to Evolving Hockey for this depressing chart: basically, when Cody Ceci was on the ice, the Sens tended to get blasted off the face of the Earth in shots against. The good news is the Leafs are themselves already a bad team in shots against, so if you put them together [does math] ah fuck.

Micah McCurdy’s description of threat against is no more cheerful:

This is very bad. In words, it means that we’d expect him to allow 12% more goals against than average. While the Sens were quite bad (more on that later), it’s worth noting these numbers do at least try to isolate the individual’s impact independent of his team, and that impact is not good.

We can probably take it for granted that most numbers do not like Cody Ceci. They all say mean things. It’s hurtful.

What about people who actually watch him?

Well, amongst a certain portion of the hockey community, Cody Ceci was viewed as at least potentially an upper-echelon shutdown defenceman. That portion included multiple NHL GMs for quite a while, and may still. There is a persistent and apparently well-founded rumour that the Sens once turned down the chance to acquire Taylor Hall (!) for him, which would have been an even more hilarious Hall trade than the one that wound up happening.

That sounds a little better, except, well, read this. The growing consensus is that despite his classical physical gifts—Ceci is big, has a good shot, and he’s not a bad skater—his hockey sense is heartbreakingly limited. He makes bad decisions without the puck. A lot.

Further, despite being dreamt on for years and years as a defensive defenceman, his real ability (such as it is) is mostly offensive, whereas his work in his own zone is just as rough at the numbers would tell you.

Also, just for the hell of it, watch this.

Usage

There was a period of several years where it seemed that all the hockey nerds really wanted to do was bicker about whether quality of competition really impacted results. In other words, if you were used in a tough matchup role against top lines, how much worse should we expect your numbers to be than a player who faced mostly bottom sixers?

I’ll warn you now: I do not know the real answer to this question. I don’t think anyone does for sure, though smart people like those who made the above graphs are doing good work to try and tease it out. And again, I’m going to emphasize: both Evolving Hockey and Micah McCurdy are attempting to account for quality of competition as well as quality of teammates. That’s baked into those numbers.

That said: as per Puck IQ, Cody Ceci played more minutes against Elite competition than all but 25 defencemen in the NHL last year (Morgan Rielly was 11th, for the record.) Ceci spent significantly more time against top competition than any other Sens defenceman. Ceci was, whatever else we might think of him, being fed to the wolves night in, night out, on a team that was absolute ass.

Further to that: the actual impact of quality of competition is still controversial—many smart people will tell you it washes out over time because everyone mostly plays everyone else given a large enough sample. But everyone agrees the quality of your teammates matters a lot. And—I’m not sure if you’ve heard—the Sens are terrible!

God, it feels good just to say that again. The Ottawa Senators were a tragicomic trainwreck the last couple of years, and I really worry we don’t laugh at them enough. I have a non-schadenfreude reason for mentioning it, though: the Sens as a whole put up awful numbers the last two seasons. When superstar RW Mark Stone, who should definitely not make less than Mitch Marner by the way, was off the ice and/or traded, the team was downright abyssal. They put up a CF% barely better than the 2014-15 Sabres who gutted their team on purpose.

Playing on a team that bad is not good for your numbers unless you are a star and the number is Corsi Relative. Narrowing our focus a bit, here were Cody Ceci’s regular defence partners over the last three years, a period where he was consistently used against Elite competition:

2016-17: Dion Phaneuf

2017-18: Dion Phaneuf

2018-19: Maxime Lajoie

With all due respect to our former captain, neither he nor Lajoie was more than a third-pair defenceman in ability during that time period. Throw in that Ceci was often playing behind third lines centred by the likes of Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zach Smith—fine enough checking centres, but ain’t nobody mistaking them for stars—and you start to wonder whether Ceci could have been put in a worse position short of being tied up and thrown in the Ottawa River.

Again, those charts up there are supposed to account for that. I have the greatest respect for the people who create these metrics through a process that, from where I’m sitting, might as well just be straight-up magic. But I can at least believe that maybe, in an extreme case like Cody Ceci’s, his results—while still obviously and undeniably bad—might be getting weighed down more than is accounted for. At least, that’s what I have to hope.

There are a few examples of infamously bad defencemen changing teams and doing better than the stats community might have expected—Dan Girardi going from the New York Rangers to Tampa Bay, or Erik Gudbranson moving from Vancouver to Pittsburgh. Both went from bad teams to better ones, and both were no longer playing top competition. Girardi, of course, also got to partner with Victor Hedman, which is a rare luxury. (You may wonder that Hedman was not playing the toughest competition on Tampa Bay, but he wasn’t; Ryan McDonagh was.)

The upshot of all this is that it is not hard to see Cody Ceci being placed in an easier role on a better team with a better partner, presumably Morgan Rielly or Jake Muzzin, and doing better than he did in Ottawa. I think everyone would expect that to have some impact. The question is whether it’s enough of one that this is going to work.

In Kyle We Trust

I wrote a piece a while back called “Am I Smarter Than Mike Babcock?” The answer, obviously, is no. I do not know more about running a hockey team than Kyle Dubas or Mike Babcock. Most people don’t, and I think most people who think either job is easy are kidding themselves.

The Zaitsev for Ceci trade made sense whether you think Ceci is any good or not, because it unloaded a contract with nasty term. But Kyle Dubas has made the conscious choice to sign Cody Ceci for a year and $4.5M, and he hasn’t pursued any of the means by which he might have tried to dispose of the contract entirely at the first opportunity. A lot of Leaf Twitter would have preferred for him to do that, on the basis that Ceci’s results are so awful that whoever the next man up is—Justin Holl, Teemu Kivihalme, or the blessed Timothy Liljegren—would likely do a better job just by default. That would do until Travis Dermott came back from injury. And, the argument goes, we would have then freed up several million dollars to improve some other way. Maybe, if we were very lucky, we could even have re-signed our beloved Jake Gardiner.

Let’s back up for a second. It’s worth noting we couldn’t have stopped Ceci picking up his qualifying offer at a year and $4.3M anyway if he had wanted to, and that his new deal is by no means impossible to trade at the deadline if someone wants him (the prorated dollars and cap hit will be down to $1.5M or so by then.) There’s also a bit of a logical two-step going on here about whether Cody Ceci is worth $4.5M. For the trade, he doesn’t have to be worth that money; he just has to be worth accepting it to unload Zaitsev’s deal. For the contract, he doesn’t have to be worth $4.5M either; he just has to be good enough that we’re better off keeping him than trying to free up his salary cap and slotting in a replacement-level player. If we can’t unload the contract or if we can’t currently find another use for the money we would save thereby, keeping him can make sense for now even at an overpay.

So Kyle Dubas seems to be moving deliberately here. He’s probably picking what he believes is the least bad option; I really doubt he’s secretly in love with Cody Ceci’s game. But he thinks that he’s playable and he thinks paying him and playing him is better than a replacement-level guy from the fringe. It seems clear that’s the case.

Is that enough to trust the decision?

Kyle Dubas has been, again and again, a progressive GM. Prior to this move, he has made exactly zero player acquisitions I didn’t like and several that I liked very much. His marquee defence add during the season was Corsi superstar Jake Muzzin. The Leafs have the largest analytics department in the NHL. There is no way they are not at least aware that Cody Ceci’s results have been, you know, bad, for several years. In the Carlyle-Nonis years I would have assumed that the team practically took bad Corsi as a badge of honour. Kyle Dubas’ Leafs aren’t like that.

Ultimately I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt here. Tentatively and with a fair bit of reluctance, because I laughed at Cody Ceci’s numbers a lot on the Sens. But I’ll trust that the improving team, teammate and competition situation will hopefully make Cody Ceci’s year at least bearable for us.

If not, well, we’ve endured worse.