On Saturday, we first got wind of a potential trade between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators that is centred around Nikita Zaitsev and Cody Ceci.
It may well be there is a sweetener going from TOR to OTT to facilitate Zaitsev for Ceci. It could be a player (Connor Brown?) or it could be a pick. But there will no doubt be some additional piece going from TOR to OTT.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) June 30, 2019
This trade is a really interesting one, for a variety of reasons. For one, it seemingly confirms that Zaitsev was seen as a net negative asset. Bob McKenzie has reported that there is likely a sweetener heading from Toronto to Ottawa. For another, Ceci himself is an incredibly polarizing player who has been demonized in some quarters for his horrific on-ice results, while being lauded in others as having real trade value. To add to the complexity of valuing him as an asset and what the Leafs will do with him, he is also a restricted free agent (RFA) with arbitration rights.
We’re going to break down a few basic scenarios about what the Leafs’ and Ceci’s options are, depending on the Leafs’ opinion of Ceci as a player, Ceci’s unrestricted free agent (UFA) market, and his trade value.
Scenario 1: The Leafs do not want Ceci on their roster in any way
We’ll first consider the case where the Leafs want to get rid of Ceci through whatever means possible. There are a few ways that this could go.
Scenario 1A: Ceci can be traded without attaching a meaningful asset to another team
I’m not sure how likely this scenario is. Ottawa just traded Ceci for a similar player on a bad contract, and it took a sweetener from the Leafs to make it happen. Surely, if Ceci had actual value around the league, Ottawa would have simply executed that trade instead. Maybe they actually do value Zaitsev as an asset — it is Ottawa, after all. Ottawa needs actual players, and to make the salary floor, so a guy who can soak up minutes and is cost-certain for a long time may hold actual appeal to them.
Regardless, it’s hard to say exactly how much value Ceci has around the league. I would guess not much, but it only takes one team. In this sub-scenario, the Leafs simply trade Ceci for some sort of return, and they have effectively rid themselves of the Zaitsev deal without any major negative repercussions. There is some room to be creative here. The Leafs could lever their financial might and make Ceci more attractive (assuming he is willing to play ball) by signing him to a one year deal that is heavy on signing bonuses and light on actual salary, which could then be immediately traded to a team that is interested in Ceci and has cap room.
Scenario 1B: Ceci does not have actual trade value
This gets a little thornier. So the Leafs still want to get rid of Ceci, but in this scenario, he can’t be traded unless the Leafs add some sweetener of importance (the level of importance will vary from person to person, so we’re going to keep this abstract for now). For that reason, a trade is unpalatable.
How else can the Leafs rid themselves of Ceci? Well, the natural thought is a buyout, similar to what happened with Jared Cowen. The problem is that the first buyout window closes on June 30, and since this trade will only go through after the Leafs pay a signing bonus to Zaitsev on July 1, that is a non-starter. The second buyout window is only activated if the Leafs have any player elect for arbitration. With the Andreas Johnsson signing made official, they have no players with such rights. Even if they did, they couldn’t buy out Ceci, as he wasn’t on the club’s reserve list at the last trade deadline. So a buyout simply won’t work.
As mentioned earlier, Ceci is currently a restricted free agent (RFA) with arbitration rights of his own. His qualifying offer (QO) is equal to his 2018-2019 salary, which is $4.3M. If Ceci elects for arbitration, the term of the contract resulting from the arbitration process will be one year (CBA 12.09(c)). As a result, the Leafs will have the option to walk away for any salary above $4,397,832 (CBA 12.10(d) and CapFriendly). In this case, the Leafs could come in with an arbitration ask above this amount. Assuming Ceci’s is also above this amount (which is likely, as it is only slightly higher than his QO), the award will also be above this figure, allowing them to walk away from it. It’s unclear if the NHL will consider this unlawful or against the spirit of arbitration; I think it’s justifiable. If they do this, Ceci becomes a UFA. The Leafs won’t be able to walk away from any arbitration award if they elect for arbitration themselves (CBA 12.10(e)).
There are two potential issues with this plan. The first is that this applies for player-elected arbitration only. This is not a big deal. If the Leafs simply do not give any contract offer to Ceci, one of his only recourses is to elect for arbitration, which guarantees either a contract or him becoming a UFA, and being free to negotiate with any team in the league. However, player-elected arbitration is not his only recourse. He can also choose to accept the qualifying offer.
If he does so, then he’s on the books for $4.3M this season, and the Leafs are back where they started, with a significant sum of money tied to a player who is simply not worth it. Now, this has the distinct advantage of being a one year deal, after which Ceci is a UFA. So this is still better than having Zaitsev’s deal on the books. It just doesn’t really help the Leafs for this season.
As far as I can tell, there is no mechanism to rescind a QO, like there is in the NBA. The Leafs never qualified Ceci themselves, but the Senators did, and my understanding is that they inherit Ceci and his contract with the QO tendered. If such a mechanism does exist, the Leafs would rescind the QO in this scenario and Ceci would become a UFA, but I’m going to assume that this will not happen. Interestingly, it would appear that mutual termination isn’t an option here, since there’s no actual contract between the two parties. The only thing tying them together is the QO.
This leads to an interesting game of cat and mouse. There’s basically no scenario where it’s advantageous for the Leafs to file for arbitration, as they would be forced to pay Ceci more than his qualifying offer (CBA 12.3(b)(ii)) and wouldn’t have walk away rights. Instead, they would want Ceci to elect for arbitration. It may potentially be advantageous for Ceci to do so as well, depending on his UFA market. If there is a team that would be willing to sign him (after the arbitration hearing), then this could potentially work for both parties, as the Leafs would be rid of any obligation to Ceci, and he would get a contract he finds suitable.
However, if Ceci feels his UFA market is soft, then there’s no advantage to electing for arbitration, because he knows (or his agent does) that the Leafs will walk away. To emphasize, the main reason for Ceci to elect for arbitration in this case is if he wants to become a UFA after his hearing. It’s hard to know how likely this is. Given his apparent lack of trade value, and the fact that he would have to wait until his arbitration hearing to sign for another team (at which point many teams may have addressed their needs), I would guess that there is not that strong an impetus for him to elect for arbitration.
This leads him to his other option — signing his QO. If he does so, the Leafs are stuck with him for a year. This also has the benefit for Ceci of essentially forcing the Leafs to play him, because they won’t have cap room to significantly alter their defense (unless they trade one of Nazem Kadri, Andreas Johnsson, or Kasperi Kapanen). Ceci could attempt to rebuild his value and then hit UFA at a better point in his career. The Leafs could counter by being antagonistic and telling him that if he signs his QO, they’ll bury him in the minors or press-box him, making it rather hard to rebuild his value and sign any UFA deal of note. This could go a lot of ways, but the short version is that it depends on what Ceci wants... he holds the cards in terms of the impact on the Leafs this season. Toronto can try to influence him in nice and not so nice ways, but the choice is his.
The timing of this is also notable. This trade will become official after July 1. If he wants to file for arbitration, Ceci has until 5 pm on July 5th. If he wants to accept his QO, he must do so by by 5 pm on July 15th. So we should know roughly what happens within the next two weeks.
Scenario 2: The Leafs want Ceci as depth
Kyle Dubas has said a few times that he didn’t want to trade Zaitsev without an NHL defencemen coming back. It’s somewhat understandable for Dubas to want that. Even if Zaitsev was traded for cap space, the Leafs don’t have much room or many assets with which to replace him and the minutes he plays. As overmatched as Zaitsev was in those minutes, I don’t think playing Justin Holl there will yield better results.
Ceci, across his career, has been completely out of his depth playing very hard minutes on a lot of bad teams. He is not entirely different from Zaitsev (minus the the bad teams part). Methods that attempt to account for usage paint both Zaitsev and Ceci as similarly poor players. That said, these methods are not perfect, and it is possible that playing Ceci lower in the lineup on a better team with better teammates results in a competent player. The Leafs have a lot of depth defensemen, between Calle Rosen, Martin Marincin, Andreas Borgman, and others. That said, it is potentially useful to have a natural RD in that group as well. Additionally, Ceci has a few reasons to pick up his QO, which would be quite unfortunate for the Leafs in terms of their ability to improve their team next season. As such, even if they are not terribly impressed by Ceci, they may decide that negotiating with him in good faith may yield a better result than a one year, $4.3M deal. Ceci would not be good value on anything but a buriable AAV in my opinion, but if the choice is a one year deal at $4.3M or a longer deal with a lower AAV, well... it becomes an actual debate.
As such, it would not be a massive shock to see the Leafs offer Ceci an actual contract that would be in line with what a decent third pairing player gets ($1M - $2M), recognizing that Ceci has real incentives to pick up his QO and head into UFA next offseason. The Leafs would likely have to offer term, in order to prevent Ceci from doing just that (they could try and talk him into taking less than his QO on a one year deal, but that is a tough sell).
They would have to argue that Toronto is a great place to rehabilitate your career and value, pointing to players such as Tyler Ennis and Mason Raymond, who did just that. On Ceci’s end, he’d have to be willing to take a single year hit in salary to play for a good team and in a much better situation than Ottawa. The Leafs might actually have to offer more than two years to convince him to do so, and I wouldn’t be particularly thrilled about that. You never want to commit years to depth players, even at reasonable cap hits (and as mentioned earlier, a reasonable cap hit for Ceci is quite low indeed).
Ceci has the leverage of his QO in this scenario. The Leafs would have to emphasize that playing a useful role on a good team over a few years can potentially lengthen his career greatly, while chasing the single-year benefit that accepting his QO would yield may not make him very attractive to other teams in a year’s time. Once again, they could potentially be a little sinister here, though that doesn’t appear to be the way Kyle Dubas has done business so far.
There’s a lot of variance in the possible outcomes here, because we don’t know the degree to which Ceci is amenable to taking a longer term, lower AAV deal to rebuild his career, or even whether he feels he needs to. If other teams are willing to actually pay him, we end up in one of the scenarios described in 1b, where the Leafs and Ceci are both incentivized to let him become a UFA.