My immediate reaction to the Pittsburgh Penguins signing of Cody Ceci was to be a little underwhelmed, especially in the wake of the Jack Johnson buyout. Based on everything I had been led to believe from his time in Ottawa and Toronto it seemed like a mostly lateral move that might be a slight upgrade to the defense. Nothing major. Nothing to be overly excited about.
But, sometimes you swing and miss. In this case the person taking the big whiff was me, because not only has Ceci exceeded whatever low expectations existed for him at the start of the season, he has actually been really good. It is actually quite stunning, because everything I had been led to believe about him based on his play in Ottawa and Toronto was that he was going to be a mess. He has been quite the opposite.
Be honest, you really have not seen many plays this season where he has been exposed or overmatched or where you are left saying “what the hell was that, man?” On the contrary, I have had more moments where I have said out loud “that was a really good play by Ceci,” with the most recent of those plays coming in Saturday’s win against Buffalo when he found himself in a one-on-one matchup with Taylor Hall and completely shut him down. Maybe that says more about where Hall is at this point in his career (or season?) but that was still an isolated matchup against a former league MVP. That is a tough challenge, and he aced it.
All of this though is anecdotal and subjective eye-test stuff.
The numbers paint a more objective story, and it is pretty wild just how impactful he has been defensively.
So far this season the Penguins have used nine different defense pairings that have logged at least 50 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together.
If you rank those defense pairings by goals against, expected goals against, and scoring chances against Ceci is a common denominator on some of the best pairings.
Here we are with basic goals against per 60 minutes.
Penguins Defense Pairings Goals Against Per 60 Minutes
|Cody Ceci||Chad Ruhwedel||53.07||4.82||1.13|
|Mike Matheson||Cody Ceci||92.70||5.15||1.29|
|Kris Letang||Brian Dumoulin||198.98||16.58||1.81|
|Cody Ceci||John Marino||72.77||3.31||2.47|
|Kris Letang||Pierre-Olivier Joseph||143.93||9.60||2.5|
|Kris Letang||Marcus Pettersson||68.73||3.82||2.62|
|Cody Ceci||Marcus Pettersson||87.17||5.81||2.75|
|Marcus Pettersson||John Marino||81.65||5.10||2.94|
|Mike Matheson||John Marino||220.17||12.95||3.27|
Now expected goals against...
Penguins Defense Pairings Expected Goals Against Per 60 Minutes
|Cody Ceci||Chad Ruhwedel||53.07||4.82||1.29|
|Mike Matheson||Cody Ceci||92.70||5.15||1.33|
|Kris Letang||Brian Dumoulin||198.98||16.58||1.83|
|Marcus Pettersson||John Marino||81.65||5.10||1.88|
|Cody Ceci||Marcus Pettersson||87.17||5.81||2.09|
|Cody Ceci||John Marino||72.77||3.31||2.12|
|Kris Letang||Pierre-Olivier Joseph||143.93||9.60||2.35|
|Kris Letang||Marcus Pettersson||68.73||3.82||2.52|
|Mike Matheson||John Marino||220.17||12.95||2.59|
Now the high-danger scoring chances against...
Penguins Defense Pairings High Danger Scoring Chances Against Per 60 Minutes
|Cody Ceci||Chad Ruhwedel||53.07||4.82||5.65|
|Mike Matheson||Cody Ceci||92.70||5.15||5.83|
|Cody Ceci||John Marino||72.77||3.31||8.25|
|Kris Letang||Brian Dumoulin||198.98||16.58||8.44|
|Cody Ceci||Marcus Pettersson||87.17||5.81||12.39|
|Mike Matheson||John Marino||220.17||12.95||13.08|
|Marcus Pettersson||John Marino||81.65||5.10||13.23|
|Kris Letang||Pierre-Olivier Joseph||143.93||9.60||13.76|
|Kris Letang||Marcus Pettersson||68.73||3.82||14.84|
Granted, some of these pairings are smaller sample sizes. But Ceci is still on the best pairings in every one of these categories when it comes to suppressing shots, scoring chances, and goals. He may not do a lot to drive the offense, but he is doing his part to keep the puck out of the Penguins’ net. It is also pretty stunning to see how good defensively the Ceci-Matheson duo has been when it has been used. That is not at all what I expected to see given the perception of both players at the start of the season, and even during the season at times.
What I did expect to see is Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin playing strong hockey. They remain awesome together.
Now the question becomes whether or not this is just a small sample size, or if it is something we should be expecting to continue all season. I remember going through a phase during Erik Gudbranson’s time here where he had some strong numbers alongside Marcus Pettersson and thinking that he turned a corner in his career. That maybe the Penguins had stumbled upon something with him and that pairing. It did not quite work out that way consistently or long-term.
Either way, Ceci required a minimal investment in free agency and has probably already exceeded that contract value with the way he has played. He has pretty much been everything former general manager Jim Rutherford hoped that Jack Johnson would be. A quality, depth defenseman that stabilizes things defensively and is signed to an appropriate contract with minimal risk or downside. We will have to see how the rest of the season plays out but the early returns are more than promising.