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Why did the Leafs pick Cody Ceci over Jake Gardiner?

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If you liked all those clever schemes that meant they were going to magic away Ceci’s contract to sign Gardiner, you’re likely upset now.

The Carolina Hurricanes signed Jake Gardiner to a contract with an AAV $450,000 less than Cody Ceci’s. Does this mean the Leafs chose Ceci over Gardiner? Is this that handedness fetish again? Is this an outrage?

Let’s go through it from the top.

Remember when all the clever schemes to magic away Patrick Marleau’s contract didn’t work, and the Leafs only removed that giant cap-space-eating final year of his deal from their books because two things happened:

  • He wanted to be traded, so he waived his no-move clause.
  • The Leafs paid a first round pick.

Keep those facts in mind.

After trading Nikita Zaitsev to the Ottawa Senators for the rights to RFA Cody Ceci, the Maple Leafs signed Ceci to a one year deal for $4.5 million, the exact same AAV as Nikita Zaitsev’s contract. The net effect of this trade (barring the Connor Brown part) was a wash on cap space.

They Gave Him a Raise!

This amount was a raise over his qualifying offer of $4.3 million, issued by the Ottawa Senators before the trade. Ceci got to the $4.3 million level last year in arbitration, and once you get to a certain salary level, your qualifying offer is just your previous season’s salary.

Once Ceci was traded to the Leafs, he had three options: accept the qualifying offer, elect arbitration or negotiate a new deal. There was no reason for him to elect arbitration and risk the Leafs walking away. There was no reason to just accept the qualifying offer unless he thought the Leafs were going to elect arbitration, which they had no reason to do. That left negotiating a new contract as the only real option for him.

There is no reason to think he’d have received less than $4.5 this year in arbitration, so there was no point in the Leafs electing arbitration to get a lower AAV. The Leafs would also have been risking Ceci choosing a two-year deal, as the party that does not elect the arbitration chooses the term.

If the Leafs had elected arbitration, Ceci would have gotten at least $4.4 million just based on the rising salary cap. But in addition to the cap going up, his boxcar stats rose too. His points per game rose from 0.23 to 0.35 year-over-year and his TOI in all situations has been 23:12, 23:20 and 22:33 over the last three years, which is second only to Thomas Chabot (a budding star) last season on the Senators.

But his Corsi, though... The arbitrator does not care. Arbitration was not going to reduce his salary. The award of $4.3 million last summer was a raise from a contract that had $2.8 million in AAV with a salary of $3.35 million.

Just to drive this home, the Ottawa Senators re-signed him in 2016, as he was coming off his ELC, to a reasonable looking deal in AAV, but they structured it so the salary in the second season was over one million dollars higher. They did that, presumably out of concern for their short-term cash flow, on a contract that would expire with arbitration rights. So they knew that by structuring it that way they were raising the necessary qualifying offer and the arbitration award. Qualifying offers and arbitration both are based on salary not the clever way you rig up your AAV. As a result, the Senators were stuck with the $4.3 million in cap hit and the same in real money last season.

Except they weren’t. That award was above last year’s threshold where they could have walked away. They tried to trade Ceci at last year’s deadline, and did not. They could not trade his RFA rights earlier in the offseason, and then, to maintain this asset they managed to make into an untradeable player, they issued the qualifying offer when they again could have simply walked away. And then they found a swap for an older, nearly identical player on a $4.5 million AAV for four more years, and they made that deal!

By trading away Nikita Zaitsev’s difficult to move future term, Kyle Dubas took advantage of all of that bungling. There is an argument to be made that the Connor Brown part of the deal was for the third-round pick, and the opportunity to see if Ben Harpur can be made into a valuable player somehow. But the trade itself was a long-term win for the future flexibility of the Leafs’ roster construction.

There are still many fans (and media) who were deeply disappointed that the disappearing spell Kyle Dubas cast on Nikita Zaitsev came at a cost. It’s like no one’s ever read a fairy tale. And now that the perceived cost is also the loss of Jake Gardiner, the cut stings anew.

There had to be a way to get rid of Ceci, right?

The Walk Away Scheme

Cody Ceci, like almost all NHLers, has an agent. And his agent has read the CBA arbitration rules, so he knows that any arbitration award Ceci might have gotten if he had elected that method of settling his contract would have been high enough the Leafs could simply walk away from it.

And no, there really wasn’t any incentive for Ceci to engineer that outcome specifically to go UFA in this summer instead of after a season on the Leafs. From his point of view, that plan never made any sense because he’d hit the UFA market sometime in August, and he’d be trying to get taken on, presumably for $5 million or so, when teams have no cap space. Jake Gardiner didn’t exactly sign for top dollar.

The only reason for Ceci to elect arbitration and risk having no contract at the end of it is if the idea of playing on the Leafs was so unpalatable, he’d rather be on whichever team loses someone to injury in training camp on a low-money deal.

Ceci, who reportedly met with Mike Babcock and discussed playing on the Leafs, would know exactly what his role on the team would be. And given the injury status of Travis Dermott and the steep drop-off in the Leafs roster after him, particularly with the best-of-the-rest, Calle Rosen, gone for Tyson Barrie, the Leafs need someone to take on part of the role played by Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey. Any sensible player would see the opportunity in playing on the Leafs.

The Leafs had no way to force Ceci to elect arbitration, since he could have simply accepted his qualifying offer at any time or waited until the deadline had passed and demanded a negotiated settlement then. You cannot walk away from team-elected arbitration. In making this trade in the first place, the Leafs went in knowing they were trading four years of Zaitsev’s deal for a Zaitsev clone coming back. This wasn’t news to them. And they did it on purpose.

None of that means Ceci was their first choice or that they “like” him better than Gardiner or any of that. It means that they chose to trade Zaitsev now, as per his request, instead of keeping him and letting him try to remake his career in one more season on the Leafs.

If the Leafs had just kept Zaitsev, there still wouldn’t be $4 million for Jake Gardiner, no matter what deal Mitch Marner eventually signs.

Now, at Zaitsev’s old AAV, Cody Ceci gets to see if he can take the financially-comfortable (for him) mess the Ottawa Senators made of his career and turn it in to something that will see him through the next ten years. $4.5 million is a lot of money, but it only lasts for one year. Ceci is only 25 (soon to be 26), and he wants to make a success of his UFA years. He wants to succeed as a Maple Leaf.

I was hoping that Ceci would take a one-year discount to make the Leafs the place he could use as an opportunity to remake his career, and realistically, he did. Considering the way arbitration works to inflate salaries for some players, he took several hundred thousand less than he could have had. Some studies of salary arbitration in the real world show either a zero effect on wage inflation or a variable one. But in the NHL, where it’s common for players to be misjudged and overpaid until, at some point in UFA years, a correction is made, arbitration can help delay that correction and further inflate the “market rate” for players.

The Senators had two or three chances to recognize that Ceci wasn’t really a top pairing defender, even when they had one on the roster who was. And they continually kept the machine rolling that led to this trade once they wanted to get rid of him. And it’s not even clear why they were done with him. Was it the Uber video? And yet, they didn’t just let him go when they could have. Perhaps they genuinely see what they were doing as asset management.

For the Leafs, once they had Ceci’s rights, they had to decide what actual asset management plan was the right one that took into account their short- and long-term roster needs. They don’t actually have the luxury of looking at a GAR or a RAPM chart or some Corsi stats and deciding if they “like” the player or not. Just letting him walk would have been the right call if it was at all possible, or I think so, anyway. But I don’t see how it ever could have been possible. Just like with Marleau, to magic away this contract required the player’s cooperation, and Ceci had no reason to offer it up.

The next best option is exactly what the Leafs did — give Ceci a token raise to make him feel like the Leafs are a good team for him to pour out his best effort for. The next step is not to act as though they have this millstone around their necks who they’re desperate to cut loose. The next step is to try to find a way to play Ceci that fills some needs on the ice, and maximizes his abilities. If you think the Leafs aren’t equipped behind the bench to do that, there’s this reminder:

But They Could Have Traded Him!

Anyone can be traded. The Marleau deal is yet another lesson in that truth. You just have to be willing to pay for it. The Senators took back a contract that is arguably much worse to trade Ceci, after failing to make a more traditional deal for him. There’s no reason to think the Leafs could have moved Ceci any easier without paying for it. And there’s a point at which you have to stop paying the price for the disappearing spell or you risk your future.

Ceci could end up traded during the season, but don’t bet on it. The idea that the Leafs will be chomping at the bit to trade him from now until the deadline and are secretly planning now to make that move doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Considering how the Leafs defenders dropped onto IR last spring faster than Artemi Panarin can turnstile a defenceman, Ceci could be the sort of necessary depth you shouldn’t trade away as you’re heading for the playoffs. Or maybe he’ll be on IR. You can’t plan the future of your roster in the NHL six months in advance: you can only provide maximum flexibility and act when you need to act.

To move Ceci at the deadline, he’d need to be turned into a tradeable player in his own right, which Ottawa has proven twice he isn’t right now. So if he acquires a market value in trade at some point in the future, he has to be fulfilling his role well enough on the Leafs, which would mean the Leafs would be trading a reasonably serviceable player because they decided six months prior they didn’t “like” him. That’s not how it works. Okay, it is how it works on some teams, just not the Leafs.

Remember, the Leafs will be in LTIR space all season no matter what Mitch Marner decides to do. They don’t get to bank cap space for the deadline. Removing Ceci off the roster does not put the Leafs below the salary cap and out of LTIR, or it likely won’t, it just gives them one less defencemen. They could, perhaps, if they had a buyer, trade him at the deadline and bring in a better defender at the same or similar cap hit.

That is a much more pleasant fairy tale to consider, but, uh, then why didn’t that team go for that guy and not Ceci? Is this trade him at the deadline idea really a plan or is it just one of those things that requires the override button to make happen?

Paying the Price for the Zaitsev Magic

In order to move Zaitsev’s deal, this was the only viable option to keep all the prospects and picks, and get a big-minute capable player to fill in for one season. Ceci is highly incetivized to do well, but the Leafs can’t really be expecting to magic up a way to get out from under his contract unless something drastically changes between now and next February. If they really needed to get him off the roster, they’d have to pay for it, just like they did with Marleau.

And that’s why they gave him a raise, and ended up with him on the roster for the lowest possible price tag they could engineer. And no, they didn’t pick him over Jake Gardiner. It just feels that way.

Thanks, Kyle, this is the exact inverse of getting me Dougie.