Why Toronto is Signing Cody Ceci, and What That May Bring

In the aftermath of the acquisition of Cody Ceci, in large part, the opinion of Toronto fans seems to be that the team should do what it can to ensure that Ceci sees no time on the ice for the Maple Leafs. There are a number of very good reasons why that could be the best route to take. Namely, potential contract amount, the potential to flip him for draft picks or other undervalued assets, and the fact that he’s just not very good at hockey. This piece is not trying to say that getting rid of Cody Ceci would be necessarily wrong. It only seems prudent to explore some reasons why keeping him and playing him might be the better call, since the resounding vocal majority seems to be ignoring that possibility.

Contract Reasons

The most important reason to keep Ceci is the ultimate goal, maximizing his value in a trade. Because he’s a restricted free agent this year, the Leafs have to negotiate a new contract with him to keep him around.  The new contract can be structured as mostly a signing bonus, so he’ll get paid that money once the contract is signed. He would then be owed very little in real money for the rest of that contract. That would make him an attractive trade asset for internal-budget teams like the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, and, somewhat ironically, the Ottawa Senators. This would potentially earn you significantly more in a trade than you would get if you traded his rights today.

Another contractual reason is that since they know Ceci isn’t part of their long term plans, there’s no risk of fracturing a relationship with the player. The CBA rules force a minimum that the Leafs have to pay Ceci, which is a 1 year, $4.3M contract, and they are likely to negotiate to just above that mark. Ceci has arbitration rights, and it’s possible that the arbitrator might give him an even bigger raise on his previous $4.3M contract. While the money is one concern, the bigger issue is that an arbitration award would be 100% base salary. The Leafs will do what they can to avoid that by promising a slight raise, as long as they can ensure that that’s mostly in signing bonus as above in order to execute the strategy above.

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This is reportedly exactly what is happening, according to Bob McKenzie, and supported by Darren Dreger:

It should be stated that the alternate route to take, contractually, would be to wait out Ceci and force him to either accept the minimum offer of 1 year at $4.3M, or go to arbitration and try to earn a good chunk more. The CBA states that during arbitration, if a player is awarded more than $4.3M, the team can simply walk away. The problem is that A) you still need to sign someone to play defence, and B) you don’t gain any assets from the eventual future trade of Cody Ceci. This is a bet that the Leafs management seems completely willing to take.

Hockey Reasons

Ceci has struggled mightily in his time in Ottawa. I believe this as fact and will not dispute it. However, it is important to consider that situational factors that are out of his control may have been negatively affecting him, and that he not that he is completely incapable at the NHL level, as he as appeared to be. The most obvious part of the problem is the fact that Ottawa has largely been an atrocious team overall in the time that Ceci has played there.

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His defense pairing partners are of particular concern. In order of playing time, his most common partners have been Dion Phaneuf in front by a country mile, then Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Borowiecki, Jared Cowen, Maxime Lajoie (2018-19 rookie for the Senators) and Thomas Chabot. The latter two combinations appeared mostly in the 2018-19 season, in which Ceci had one of his worst seasons since joining the NHL, according to Wins-Above-Replacement.

Take a look at this chart showing Cody Ceci’s seasons since joining the NHL, alongside the two Leafs’ defensemen most recently in the role that he’d be filling, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak (courtesy of Evolving Hockey):

You can see that, on aggregate, Ceci should work out to be the best of this bunch, which is admittedly not very inspiring. Still, this can be a source of positivity. Other than last year’s negative showing, and his first full NHL season in 2014-15, Ceci has mostly been a positive player. The reason he comes as a positive could be significantly driven from the fact that Wins Above Replacement takes into account the quality of the players you play with. In summation: when you adjust for the fact that he was saddled with Dion Phaneuf, it appears Ceci is actually an okay NHL player.

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Another good reason to keep Ceci around is the surgery recovery of Travis Dermott that will likely keep him out of the lineup for the first couple months of the season. Ceci could fill in as an expensive bottom pairing defender for those two months and then could be traded out for draft picks or prospects to a team that likes him. That way, of his ~$4.5M cap hit, only ~$1M would actually count towards the end-of-season salary cap, because it works on a season long cumulative basis. You accumulate a certain chunk of money against the salary cap every day depending how much you’re paying the players that are on your roster that day. If you play Ceci for 2 months, and use the very inexpensive Travis Dermott for the other 7 months of the season, you’re paying a total of about $2M against the cap for that defense spot.

To read more on how the Wins Above Replacement model used in this post is constructed, check out References tab on the Evolving Hockey website, under More.

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Final Thoughts

While my first impression of the idea of playing Cody Ceci was very poor, the more I looked into it the less opposed I became. He’s not a terrible player in terms of WAR, and while he will likely be too expensive, if they only use him for 2 months, it won’t hurt the final salary cap tally all that much. Additionally, having him fill in on the back-end during Dermott’s absence will be a decent stopgap for Mike Babcock.

What do you think? Is it not worth the risk of not finding a trade suitor mid-season? Do you think he’s so incompetent as a player that it’s better to just dump him now? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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