There was no move by the Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason that was more controversial at the time than the signing of free agent defenseman Cody Ceci.
It came not long after the Penguins bought out the remainder of Jack Johnson’s contract, and the immediate reaction was that they were simply replacing one inferior defender with another. The only difference was the contract and the actual role were going to be more fitting of the player’s talent level.
Ceci was viewed as mostly a bust in Toronto and Ottawa, while both fanbases came away completely unimpressed with his career to this point. There was not much reason for optimism.
My immediate reaction was that it was a “meh” signing, and that even though the contract and likely role were nothing to be terribly worried about, I still thought it was the wrong player at the wrong time.
It turned out to be a lot more than that.
It turned out to be the right player on the exact right contract.
Ceci ended up being the player that Jim Rutherford thought he was getting in Jack Johnson, for the contract he should have given to Johnson. A third-pairing player that can defend, kill penalties, and help keep the puck out of the net, while making next-to-nothing against the salary cap on a low-risk, short-term contract.
The best way to describe Ceci’s performance this season is to simply say that it was solid.
Not a game-changer. Not a standout. Not a player that you are going to build your blue line around. But certainly a player that can contribute and make your defense better.
He would be out of his element as a top-pairing or top-four defender. But the Penguins never needed him (or any potential signing or trade addition) to be that. With Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Marcus Pettersson the top-two pairings were always going to be set. They were also going to be very good, with the potential to be excellent.
What they needed was a way to put together a third pairing thatand would not get exploited, something that happened far too regularly over the previous two seasons. Ceci helped give them that alongside Mike Matheson, Matheson’s contract may be problematic long-term, but at least it is going to a player that has obvious skill, fits the system, and can make plays with the puck. Together, they have given the Penguins a very formidable — and surprising — third pairing.
Ceci’s game has its limitations.
He is not going to a player that you rely on to consistently drive offense from the blue line. His value is wrapped up entirely in his ability to defend. And when put into a role where he can focus on that and not be expected to be an impact player, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Ceci’s even strength time on ice this season was 15:56 per game, ranking fifth out of the Penguins’ regular top six defenders. His total 18:31 played per game also ranked fifth. That was the perfect role and niche for him to carve out this season.
His defensive performance this season has been just what the Penguins needed on their bottom-pairing.
In terms of allowing scoring chances, expected goals, and actual goals his performance has rated quite well compared to the rest of the defenders on the roster. He has been one of their more effective defenders and been well worth the one-year, $1.25 million contract he signed.
The question now is what the Penguins do with him in the offseason.
Did he show enough to earn a new contract? And if so, at what price? Part of what makes Ceci so valuable this season is that his contract was so cheap with no long-term risk. Does he give you the same value on a long-term deal that ties up more salary cap space on a team that is already pressed against the salary cap every season? There is not much margin for error there, and there are other defense options already coming through the organization. You have to figure Pierre-Olivier Joseph plays a more prominent role next season, Ron Hextall is obviously very familiar with Mark Friedman, while Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola are both still signed for next season.
It is going to be one of the decisions that Hextall and Brian Burke have to make this offseason.
Before then, though, we have the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ceci’s play during that might help make that decision easier. It’s no longer so surprising to watch Ceci play a steady game and help contribute to the Penguins’ success.