New Top 4 d-man crushing it so far for Edmonton Oilers but should that really surprise us?

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There’s plenty of bad vibes and iffy news about the Edmonton Oilers right now. The team is locked into a four-game losing streak, with fans questioning the value of everyone from the owner to the fourth line centre.

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But help has arrived with the return of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci back into the line-up. It’s no coincidence that the team slipped into bad habits when Nurse was out with a broken finger and Ceci was out with COVID.

The two have been, hands down, Edmonton’s best two d-men this year. Edmonton’s game got out of sync without Nurse’s dynamic minute-munching and Ceci’s super solid two-way play.

Nurse’s outstanding play — which is likely to earn him a job on Team Canada at the Winter Olympics — is not unexpected. He’s progressed every season to the point where the team rewarded him with an eight-year contract last summer.

But Ceci? For many of us — or for me at least — his fine play comes as a surprise. He’s been at least an adequate replacement for the departed Adam Larsson in Edmonton’s Top 4.

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I had never watched Ceci play much but when Edmonton signed him two a four year deal at $3.25 million per, I knew that he’d failed to please fans in Ottawa and Toronto. One type of fan or analyst in particular — those who put a great deal of weight in rating individual players with on-ice numbers such as Corsi, Fenwick and Expected Goals For percentage — were most negative about him.

I don’t put much weight in such analysis — essentially because such stats are riddled with false positives and negatives while attempting to rate an individual player by the actions of everyone when he’s on the ice — but it was hard to find many observers with much good to say about Ceci, especially if you go by the talk out of Toronto after Ceci’s 2019-20 season.

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Dubas liked Ceci fine

After bringing in Ceci from Ottawa in the summer of 2019, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas could not help but notice all the negativity from fans and pundits in regard to the player.

“[Ceci] seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas told reporters in November 2019. “It’s been interesting, even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage, there seems to be every tiny thing he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind boggling to me because if that that would have been done by subjective-oriented hockey people in the past, the objective people would have jumped all over it, and now the inverse seems to be happening and Cody seems to be the player that it’s happening about. I think every defenseman who plays that much and plays in that role is going to have mistakes… I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him.”

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But the Corsi Gang saw little good in his game

Dubas continued to defend the player all year and suggested there were some micro stats where Ceci showed up well. But such is the allure of this Corsi analysis that many fans never came around to Ceci in Toronto.

After the regular season, James Tanner at the Editor in Leaf blog dug into, as he put it, just how bad Ceci was, noting that one of things that got former coached Mike Babcock fired was his use of Ceci in Toronto’s top pairing. “It was a disaster and really, the only thing I can criticize Sheldon Keefe at all for in his time as coach so far is trying it again…”

Tanner then recited a few of Ceci’s on-ice numbers where Toronto was below 50 per cent in shot shares when Ceci was on the ice (I note both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had utterly mediocre shot shares in 2019-20 when Draisaitl won the NHL MVP and McDavid was McDavid, showing just how much teammate effects influence and distort such numbers even over a full season).

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Tanner said that on-ice analytics enthusiast JFresh dug into Ceci’s numbers and had also determined he was “a terrible player.”

“Ceci comes in with a WAR of negative value, meaning that you could replace him with any reasonable player and expect better results… Ceci’s chart shows that he is worse offensively than 75% of players, and worse defensively than half the league. His PK and PP numbers are terrible too.”

The evaluation of Ceci was also glum at Pension Plan Puppets , where writer Kayta Knappe wrote of his season: “Ceci always gave it his all. He just doesn’t have all that much to give. He rates out as almost exactly a replacement level player, playing too many minutes over his head against competition he shouldn’t have been facing.”

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And at Leafs Nation, writer Michael Mazzei said Toronto would be “far better off” if it let Ceci move on to a new team as a free agent. Based on his various on-ice shot shares and other numbers, Mazzei said “Ceci not only did not help the Leafs’ chances at success but actually hindered them.”

Mazzei struggled to grasp why Kyle Dubas so liked the player. “I understand Dubas wants to be on the good side of his players and I believe that to be a good thing in today’s NHL. But whether this was done to up his trade value or get other teams interested in signing him in free agency, it was still a questionable decision for the GM to make and only added to the frustration from Leafs fans over why Ceci was still on the roster.”

Ceci’s value on free market craters

I don’t know if all this negative talk from the on-ice analytics crowd had any impact on Ceci’s value as a free agent in the summer of 2020, but he was only able to secure a one-year deal at $1.25 million with Pittsburgh, a huge drop from the $4.5 million he’d made in Toronto in 2019-20.

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I didn’t see Ceci at all during the 2020-21 season, as I was wrapped up in the fortunes of the Oilers in the Canadian division. But when he signed in Edmonton for four years this summer, there were plenty of doubts, including from hockey observers I respect, such as Mike Johnston, who said: “Cody Ceci can defend and get in the way. But when he gets the puck and when he stops someone, then what happens with it? I think that’s going to be the problem for the Edmonton Oilers.”

Johnson questioned giving such term to a player destined for the third-pairing.

The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn had this to say: “Cody Ceci likely peaked last year as a third pair defenceman. Not as bad as he’s made out to be but… four years? $3.25 million? In this economy? Why?”

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TSN’s Ray Ferraro, an astute a judge of hockey talent as there is, also had some doubts the Oilers would be better on defence, though he was generally more positive. “I want bigger defenders that are able to stop a cycle, that you don’t spend half a day in your zone chasing the puck around. You need to have guys that step into the cycle that can break it up. Now maybe Cody Ceci can do that. We saw him when he was in Ottawa, he got elevated in a role that was just too much for him and it all fell apart. He did better in Toronto because his minutes were more managed and it seemed to work better for him. Pittsburgh he was fine. Maybe he can be that again.”

But the talk out of Pittsburgh? Really positiv

Based on all that, I wondered what the Oilers were getting in Ceci and feared the Oilers might be getting another free agent d-man who simply could not perform well in a Top 4 role.

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Nikita Nikitin anyone? Mark Fayne?

But then I noticed a trend. People who had focused more on Pittsburgh hockey in 2020-21, as opposed to fixating on the Canadian division, had much good to say about Ceci’s play in Pittsburgh, where he had worked his way up the line-up to play many Top 4 minutes.

It started with ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, who said the Oilers signing of Cody Ceci was a “decent fix” for Adam Larsson leaving.

Wyshynyski isn’t known as a great fan of the Oilers organization but here he was with a kind word about Ceci.

Hmm.

Then Jackie Spiegel of MSN.com, another hockey writer based in the USA, not Canada, called the Oilers a “winner” of this summer’s free agency, praising such moves as signing Ceci.

When I dug into what the Pittsburgh writers had to say about Ceci, I found plenty more praise.

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This from Mike Darnay of the Pensburgh blog last summer. “Ceci and Mike Matheson found a chemistry that worked well this year… The Penguins were a better team when it came to scoring goals for and preventing goals against with Ceci on the ice, compared to when he wasn’t on the ice. What a world! Prior to his time in Pittsburgh, Cody Ceci was all over highlight reels as a defenseman making ‘the big mistake.’ He did a good job of avoiding the big mistake in Pittsburgh, avoiding being on the losing end of the highlight reels more often than not. Ceci was one of the Penguins more consistent players this past season.”

At that same blog, a writer who goes by the name of Gretz added : “Ceci played really well. He not only played really well, he exceeded any and all expectations anybody could have possibly had for him. He also became one of coach Mike Sullivan’s most trusted defenders over the last three months of the season and into the playoffs, playing close to 20 minutes per game.”

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At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , writer Mike Defabo said near the end of the season of Ceci:  “A player who began the year as a frontrunner for social media scapegoat has turned into one of the Penguins’ most-dependable blueliners — and one of the NHL’s biggest surprises. Whether we’re talking advanced metrics, standard stats or the old eye test, Ceci is checking the boxes. … Once Ceci makes that initial, quick up to a forward, then he can lean on the same attributes that made him a first-round pick in the first place. His mobility is noticeable, as he’s racing through the neutral zone. He’s one of the best Penguins defensemen at joining the rush.”

And Dan Kingerski of Pittsburgh Hockey Now : “After a couple of down years and a few heavily criticized years in the Twitterverse, Ceci was well above board. The RHD had a career resurgence and more good press since his early days as a first-round pick and the counterbalance to Erik Karlsson in Ottawa.”

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Kingerski estimated the player would $3.75 million on a three-year deakl as an Unrestricted Free Agent.

And at the Pittsburgh Tribune Live , hockey writer Seth Rorabaugh: “Ceci established himself as one of the Penguins’ most consistent and cost-effective entities on the blue line… Ceci went from being a target of public scorn to a trustworthy defensive entity who was also a rare source of physical play in a lineup that offered relatively little of it.”

Ceci on the Oilers

I saw Ceci as the biggest wild card for the Oilers heading into the season. Could he step up as a Top 4 d-man? Much hanged on it for the Oilers, especially with Larsson moving on to Seattle as a free agent.

We’re 25 games into the year, and I have to say that I concur with all the positive reviews outs of Pittsburgh last season. What they saw is what the Oilers are getting, a player who makes solid reads and sound defensive stops consistently but can also move the puck just fine.

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Could it be that Kyle Dubas was more right in Toronto about Ceci than all the on-ice analytics and bloggers? I wonder.

But I’m not wondering so much about Ceci’s game any more or about the wisdom of signing him to a four-year deal at an NHL average salary. He looks like he’s going to give Edmonton good value in that regard. He looks like a real, solid Top 4 right shot d-man who can help Edmonton make the playoffs and win in the playoffs.

Staples on politics

We’re selling out our children with lockdown measures on them

Students, most of them wearing masks, leave William Aberhart High School at the end of the day in northwest Calgary on Oct. 5, 2021.
Students, most of them wearing masks, leave William Aberhart High School at the end of the day in northwest Calgary on Oct. 5, 2021. PHOTO BY JIM WELLS/POSTMEDIA

At the Cult

STAPLES: Player grades in tough loss to Bruins

McCURDY: Ceci is back

McCURDY: How is Ken Holland’s “Greybeards” strategy working out so far?

STAPLES: Edmonton Oilers have doubled in value — Forbes magazine

LEAVINS: Player grades from 4-1 loss to Wild of Minnesota

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