Weekly Question: Was the Zaitsev-Ceci Trade a Good Deal For Ottawa?

Does acquiring Connor Brown make this swap of maligned blueliners worth it?

For the last several years, the Ottawa Senators have taken a passive approach to the yearly Free Agent Frenzy, never seeming to do more than make a couple of cheap, short-term depth signings. However, on July 1st, 2019, they opted to make a bit of a splash in the form of a trade with a division rival, a trade that initially sent fans into a frenzy.

Cody Ceci? AND Ben Harpur?! TO THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS?!?!?!

To no fault of their own, Ceci and Harpur were thrown into roles by the team that they couldn’t perform in, and when the trade was announced, many fans on Twitter were relieved, and curious as to what the return was.

As it turns out, the return was Cody Ceci. Or at least, Toronto’s version of him.

The entirety of the trade was as follows:

To Ottawa: D Nikita Zaitsev, F Connor Brown, F Michael Carcone

To Toronto: D Cody Ceci, D Ben Harpur, F Aaron Luchuk, 2020 3rd round pick (CBJ).

There’s quite a bit to unpack here but once you do, you can see the logic behind this trade for both teams. In terms of evaluating the trade, we’ll focus on the NHL players involved. For the Leafs, they were looking to accommodate a trade request from Nikita Zaitsev, who hadn’t been living up to the 7-year, $4.5M/year deal he signed after the 2016-17 season. In addition, they needed to clear cap room to sign then-RFA Mitch Marner.

As for the Senators, they seemed to be less keen on moving Ceci, as they were on targeting Zaitsev. Newly-hired head coach D.J. Smith was the driving force behind Pierre Dorion adding a number of former Leafs to his roster this season, and Zaitsev was no different.

Ceci, an RFA, had been qualified by Ottawa at $4.3M and the Leafs couldn’t get out of signing him (if they waited to go to arbitration, Ceci would have just accepted the qualifying offer) so the two sides promptly agreed to a one-year, $4.5M deal.

Zaitsev had five years left on his deal, so as incentive for the Senators to take on his contract, Connor Brown, another player of interest to D.J. Smith, was also sent to Ottawa. The Leafs were probably looking to move him anyway to free some cap space, but he was a valuable bottom-six forward who otherwise could have brought back a decent pick or two.

Finally, the Senators weren’t keen on paying a $3M signing bonus to Zaitsev on July 1st, so they gave up a third-round selection in the upcoming draft in exchange for the Leafs paying for it. Not the best way to use your draft capital, especially if you’re rebuilding, but alas, ‘tis the life of a Senators’ fan. Melnyk’s not getting much through ticket sales, he’s got to pay the staff somehow.

One season later, how does the deal look for both teams? Let’s find out.

“On a team that really needs defensive help, I think he’s really going to help us,” Smith explained. “He’s going to instill tough hockey on the back end here. He’s going to cross check you; he’s going to keep you away from the net. People are going to fall in love with his game sooner rather than later.”

- via Ian Mendes, July 8th, 2019

From the start, Smith promised good play out of Zaitsev, particularly in the Senators’ own end. Did he deliver on said promise? Well...

For those of you who aren’t familiar with HockeyViz’s Isolated Impacts, red areas are where shots occur at a higher rate than the league average, while the opposite is true for blue. You want to see red on offence and blue on defence, therefore this model, like several others, paint Zaitsev as one of the worst defensemen in the NHL. From my own viewing experience, I’ll say that he wasn’t as frustrating to watch as Ceci; he wasn’t making as many glaring miscues that directly led to goals against. However, a limited ability to quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone, among other things, can add up to a lot of chances against. That seems to be what’s happened here.

Connor Brown, on the other hand, has been an excellent addition.

Given his below-average offensive impact, and above-average defensive impact, you get the impression that he’s a defensive forward, which is true. However, he brings a lot of qualities to the ice that have made me a fan:

From the above clip, we see Brown aggressively hound Gabriel Landeskog, before turning the puck over to Chris Tierney, who then springs the future captain on a breakaway. This is one of many examples of Brown’s relentless pursuit of the puck that have made him a thorn in the side of opposing lines. It also helps that with the big minutes he’s trusted with, he’s been one of the most productive Senators this year, with 16 goals and 43 points in 71 games.

A quick look at Ceci’s performance on the Leafs tells us that his numbers haven’t been overwhelmingly awful this season, however with only 8 points in 56 games, any upgrade on defence has been minimal.

To me, what makes this trade so fascinating  is the range of perspectives you can use to evaluate it, despite the small number of key players being moved. Although the Leafs would be in much better shape right now with an actual defensive upgrade, Ceci’s contract expires this July 1st, so they’ll be able to invest in their defence in the offseason, and are free of Zaitsev’s deal.

Meanwhile, while Brown’s value has increased in Ottawa, and he projects to be a key player in the short-term, they are stuck with four more years of Zaitsev. His play this season wasn’t a good sign, but on the bright side, can we say that it helped the team secure a Top-5 pick? I think that’s fair.

What’s more important is how Ottawa manages Zaitsev’s deal going forward. If his contract affects the team’s ability to sign the young core, we’ll definitely look at this trade in a much more negative light going forward.

However, if they can deploy him in a manner that makes his less of a liability on the ice, and are able to trade him within a few years whilst retaining some salary, I’d say this trade was a good bit of business by Dorion.

How did the Senators do on this trade? Be sure to let us know, and as always, stay safe!

How does the Zaitsev trade look for the Senators after one season?

Alright/Too early to tell.253

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