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The Penguins are turning Cody Ceci’s career around

In the latest of a series of defenseman rehabilitation projects, Pittsburgh are attempting to revitalize the career of former Ottawa defenseman Cody Ceci.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils
Cody Ceci (4) looks to pass as Devils center Jesper Boqvist (90) defends during the first period at Prudential Center on April 11, 2021.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins learned something from the Jack Johnson experience.

That may be an odd thing to say, given that as former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford bought out Johnson’s five-year, $16.25 million contract with one hand, he was simultaneously using to the other to agree to an equally burdensome deal. He took on Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson’s six-year, $29.25 million contract in a move that decreased the Penguins’ available cap space.

But even if no lessons were learnt by Rutherford, the same cannot be said for the Penguins’ coaching staff.

Ceci debuted on the third pairing and eventually ended up on the second when injuries opened spots higher in the lineup. Johnson, on the other hand, spent the majority of his two seasons in Pittsburgh alongside Kris Letang.

The Penguins were hoping Letang could cover for Johnson’s defensive blind spots. Unfortunately, Johnson had a greater effect on Letang than Letang had on him. Letang’s possession numbers plummeted with Johnson on the ice, shaking the foundation of an already unstable defensive lineup.

Ceci, who was struggling for several seasons in Ottawa before trades sent him to the Maple Leafs in 2019-20 and the Penguins in 2020-21, suffered from similar top-pairing exposure with the Senators. His role as a first-pairing defenseman in Ottawa, where he topped over 23 minutes per night, made him a game-changing defensive liability in front of the net.

But he’s been more reliable at the net front through his past two seasons in Toronto and Pittsburgh, in part because of his gradually decreasing ice time. After all, the Penguins learned from the Johnson experience that the first pairing is no place to shelter a struggling stay-at-home defenseman.

Through the 2019-20 season in Toronto, where he averaged 20:30 per game, Ceci improved his game to the level of a replacement-level or slightly below-replacement player. As the TheLeafsNation wrote in summer 2020:

In Pittsburgh, where Ceci is down to skating under 19 minutes per game, those numbers have flipped around to the best of his career. According to Evolving Hockey, his WAR (wins against replacement) is one, and his GAR (goals against replacement) has soared to 5.7, dwarfing his previous best of 4.3 back in his 2015-16 Senators season.

Going into Saturday, Ceci had racked up 10 points (2-8—10) since March 27, eclipsing his 2019-20 production total with the Maple Leafs in just the past 13 Penguins games. Still, his success has come in more places than just the offensive zone.

It’s dangerous just to look at this stretch of 13 games for defensive numbers— after all, more than half of them have been against teams who are well out of the playoff race— but he’s been very solid positionally, and his giveaways are at an all-time low through this whole campaign (after racking up 0.71 giveaways per game for Ottawa in 2016-17, he’s down to just 0.24 so far in 2020-21.)

What’s more is that the Penguins are slightly better defensively with him than they are without him. Unlike in Toronto, where the team performed better at 5-on-5 without Ceci on the ice, HockeyViz shot charts show that Ceci’s presence is effectively stifling even-strength shots at the netfront.

That’s not to mention that he’s making just about a quarter of what he was costing the Maple Leafs. That alone changes expectations and makes his success more encouraging for the Penguins.

Let’s not overhype what the Penguins second pairing is doing here. The Ceci/Matheson combo still puts up the worst possession statistics of the Penguins’ current pairings (Petterson/Marino and Letang/Dumoulin both maintain possession of the puck for the majority of the time they’re on the ice, while according to Natural Stat Trick, the Ceci/Matheson pair’s possession numbers dip below 50% on average).

Still, what we’re seeing from Ceci is a far cry from the negative goals and wins above replacement we saw from Jack Johnson. Being exposed on the top defensive pairing exacerbated Johnson’s struggles into an average -7.9 goals against replacement and -2.9 wins against replacement through his two seasons with the Penguins.

Ceci has become an above-replacement level option among Pittsburgh’s defensive pairings, while leaving the Dumoulin/Letang pairing alone has solidified the two into once again being the Penguins’ most reliable puck carriers on the back end.

Ceci an interesting addition to a series of varyingly-successful defenseman rehabilitation projects. And at $1.25 million, he could end up being an unexpected bargain on the second pair.