We Need To Talk About Cody Ceci
Ceci may be more of an offence-first defenceman than envisioned
Cody Ceci was drafted 15th-overall in 2012. At the time, the Ottawa Senators were ecstatic to draft the most local player in Sens history. He was raised in Ottawa and played junior for the Ottawa 67s. In a draft year featuring a number of highly-touted defencemen, most thought the Sens got a steal by drafting the strong two-way player halfway through the first round. Erik Karlsson had just won his first Norris trophy, and fans had visions of a second right-handed d-man lighting up the league for the next decade. In his first pro season, Ceci was called up to the big team in mid-December due to injuries. In just his second game, he scored his first NHL goal in the most memorable way possible: in overtime. He became a local hero overnight, and there was no way the team could send him down after that. He hasn't looked back, not playing a second of AHL hockey since. Some people think he could have used another year of development as a top-pairing guy in the AHL, but for better or for worse, he's learned pro hockey at the NHL level.
Ceci's NHL play has been a maddening dichotomy. On the one hand, he's been pretty good offensively. His 19 points are easily second-place on the team this year, more than double Chris Wideman's third-place total. There's no question that he has skill in the offensive zone. Ceci seems the most comfortable in joining the rush of any of Ottawa's d-men not named Erik Karlsson. On the other hand, he isn't much of a possession-driving defenceman. According to War On Ice, the Sens get just 43% of the 5v5 shot attempts with him on the ice. That puts him slightly ahead of Jared Cowen for worst among the team's d-men this year. The 12 players he's played more than 150 minutes of 5v5 hockey with see an average increase of 5.5% in their share of shot attempts when they get away from Ceci. If you'd rather work with more traditional shots on goal, those same 12 players see an average increase of 6.2% of the share of shots on goal when separated from Ceci. In fact, the only players Ceci doesn't drag down in terms of shots are Alex Chiasson, Dave Dziurzynski, and Chris Wideman, the latter in just 7:41 of 5v5 time. Ottawa has been having trouble preventing and generating shots this season, and it doesn't help when a regular top-four defenceman is having trouble beating out replacement-level players at driving the play.
I think there's a comparison to be made between Ceci and someone like Torey Krug. Krug is a defenceman with offensive instincts who isn't the most reliable in his own zone. So Claude Julien puts out players like Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller, Zach Trotman, and Adam McQuaid against the tougher competition, allowing Krug to mop up the easier competition and the offensive zone starts. Krug then has one of the best 5v5 Corsi ratings on his team, and mans a powerplay from the back-end. Ryan Lambert recently had an article about how Justin Schultz should have been seen as more of a Krug-type player in Edmonton, but was originally played as more of a Karlsson-type player. I can't help but wonder if Ceci is similar, the kind of defenceman whose shortcomings defensively can be made up for by his offensive tendencies.
After all, Ceci's skills seem to be mostly offensive. His shot is among the best for Sens defencemen. He seems to pick his spots well. I would argue he's pretty good at pinching as well. His skating is strong, which allows him to join the rush so effectively. However, some of his defensive skills still seem to need work. NKB would tell you that Ceci's gap control seems off. He doesn't know what to do when a player is rushing at him with the puck. His passing isn't great, which makes it hard for him to get the puck out of the zone while keeping Sens possession. Watching him on the PK, he seems unable to gain body position on most players. When he tries to play the Mark Borowiecki role of clearing the crease, he generally seems to fail. It all makes it look like Ceci is less of an all-around defenceman, and more of a specialist from the back-end.
The question is though, do the Senators have use for a Torey Krug? In Karlsson, they have a defenceman who can face the toughest competition, win the 5-on-5 battle, and also man the powerplay better than anyone in the league. Ceci has been averaging 0:34 on the PP per game, and it seems highly unlikely he'll ever pass Karlsson for powerplay proficiency. Ottawa doesn't need a powerplay specialist, meaning Ceci would then be cast as a player who needs protection on the bottom pairing and plays about 10 minutes a night. It seems like a waste of a roster spot.
Obviously, this is an exaggerated look at Ceci. As people are fond of point out, he's only 22. Defencemen tend to take longer to develop, and his development was likely hurt by rushing him to the NHL in the first place. Still, with each passing season it's looking more and more likely that Ceci's ceiling is lower than we expected. There's no question that Ceci has NHL-calibre offensive instincts, but if that's all he has, the Sens don't have a lot of use for him. The team would be best off moving him to fill an area of need, possibly for a certain Florida-based left-winger who has fallen out of favour with his team.