When the Pittsburgh Penguins signed Cody Ceci to a one-year contract a year ago in free agency it was not a popular decision. The list of people that actually liked the move was a very short and distinguished list, and the expectations for the signing could not have possibly been any lower.
As the season went on, though, a weird thing started to happen.
Ceci played really well. He not only played really well, he exceeded any and all expectations anybody could have possibly had for him. He also became one of coach Mike Sullivan’s most trusted defenders over the last three months of the season and into the playoffs, playing close to 20 minutes per game.
Was he a top-pairing player or somebody that made a major impact? No. But he did play well defensively with solid defensive metrics across the board. His expected goals against, goals against, high-danger chances against, and scoring chances against compared favorably to the top defenders on the roster and certainly made him one of their top five (and in some cases top four) defenders during 5-on-5 play.
He turned his surprisingly strong season into a long-term contract with the Edmonton Oilers in free agency.
While that is great for Ceci, the Penguins were smart to not match that offer or try to top it. I am sure they would have liked to have kept Ceci given how well he played, but the finances were simply not going to work.
The problem is that his departure still leaves an opening on the Penguins defense that they have to fill. Who is best suited to take that spot?
The most logical and likely solution is that Chad Ruhwedel becomes a regular and slides into that roster spot. He has played parts of five seasons with the Penguins as a depth defender and is signed for one more season at a bargain salary cap rate. While he has never been given a significant role and never really wows anybody in the eye-test department, he has posted some solid underlying possession numbers during his time with the Penguins. That includes the 2020-21 season where he appeared in 17 games.
If Ruhwedel plays on a more regulalar basis it is important that he play a sheltered role in a third-pairing role because he is not really cut out to play close to 20 minutes per game in a top-four role.
The other internal option is Mark Friedman, who is clearly a favorite of general manager Ron Hextall going back to their Philadelphia days. It would be fair to say that Friedman might have more upside than Ruhwedel at this point, but he also has far less of a track record by having only 16 games of NHL experience under his belt. That is a rather small sampling of games, especially for a 25-year-old defender. He did show some promise in his brief time with the Penguins this past season, but he is still very much a mystery given his lack of a track record.
Then there are two wild card options.
The first is that the Penguins find a way to get Pierre-Olivier Joseph involved. Of those internal options he has what is by far the most upside. He is one of the Penguins’ top prospects and showed a ton of promise a year ago during his first look in the NHL. The problem is that while Ceci played the right side (where Ruhwedel and Friedman also play) Joseph plays on the left side, and putting him the lineup would require somebody (either him, or one of the other top defenders) playing on their offside. That is not typically something that Sullivan likes to do.
They also still have Jusso Riikolla (another left side defender) counting more than $1 million against the salary cap.
The only other remaining option is a trade or somebody from outside of the organization.
That could be a challenge.
The remaining free agent market is obviously thin and full of players that may not be an upgrade over Ruhwedel and would almost certainly cost more money.
At the moment salary cap space is an issue, but if we assume that Evgeni Malkin starts the season on the LTIR list and spends most of the season there (and that seems likely that he will) they would have some flexibility to make a move from outside the organization. The problem then becomes 1) who is available, and 2) what do you trade to get somebody worthwhile?
Moving out one off the defenders would simply create another hole on defense that would need to be filled. Do you move somebody like, say, Marcus Pettersson and create a spot on the left side for Joseph to step into? Or do you move a forward out to create salary cap space that way? The latter option is not ideal because with the departures of Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev this offseason, as welll as the early season absence off Malkin, has alread put a dent in the Penguins’ forward depth. Can you afford to move another forward to fill a third-pairing spot on defense? Probably not.
So what do you say, Penguins fans?
What is the best option to take over that spot that belonged to Ceci this past season?
Admit it, you never thought this would be a discussion point when Ceci was originally signed by the Penguins.
Who should take Cody Ceci’s spot on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense?
This poll is closed
Figure out a way to get Pierre-Olivier Joseph in the lineup
Free Agent Signing