Trending Topics: What Cody Ceci's arbitration case says about valuing defensemen

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We’re really whipping through the arbitration cases in the NHL these days and one of the next on the docket is Ottawa’s Cody Ceci.

The team’s offer here is a $3.35-million AAV, while the player is seeking $6 million.

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Ceci’s coming off a two-year bridge deal worth $2.8 million against the cap, so the Senators are basically saying he’s earned a raise of roughly 20 percent. But if we’re being perfectly honest about the player here, even Ottawa’s offer might be a bit high for what Ceci brings to the table.

Much like the numbers don’t really favor Rasmus Ristolainen in Buffalo — leaving his supporters to resort to a lot of “eye test” and “usage” arguments that don’t hold a lot of water when the numbers are this bad — the way in which both Ottawa’s offer and Ceci’s demand is too much money for the player is pretty clear. He’s a 24-year-old “shut down” defenseman with just seven goals and 36 points in his last two seasons (at least Ristolainen puts up 40-points a year pretty consistently) who also doesn’t really do anything to shut down anyone at all.

Just about every one of Ceci’s underlying stats are among the worst in the league and even relative to his really bad team, his possession numbers are abysmal.

It’s verifiable that he doesn’t score himself or increase scoring for his team — Ottawa’s scoring drops by a sixth of a goal per hour when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5 — and he doesn’t prevent the other team from scoring either (goals against increase a quarter of a goal per hour). That means he’s not good offensively or defensively, right? So given these truths, we really need to consider a lot of things here.

The idea from the player’s camp that he’s worth $6 million is insane (it would make him tied for 22nd in AAV among defensemen). But given that the arbitrator is likely to split the difference in any case heard, the player can always be forgiven for shooting for the moon. Why not ask for Connor McDavid money? But by the same token, the team can be forgiven for going way low as well, and they typically do. So what does that tell us about what Ottawa, one of the most frugal teams in the league, thinks Ceci is worth?

Because look, it’s no secret Ottawa loves this guy. A lot of it almost certainly stems from his breakout — see also: only good — season, when he went 10-16-26 in 75 games at age 22. Scoring 10 goals from the blue line isn’t easy to do, and the fact that Ceci had only 15 total goals before or after that season probably tells you plenty about how likely he is to repeat the feat. Nonetheless, Ceci continues to gobble up minutes for the Senators (23-plus minutes a night, second only to Erik Karlsson, each of the last two seasons). Indeed, Ceci played more minutes than all but 19 defensemen last year.

It’s much to their detriment, of course, but it’s no accident that it keeps happening because everyone in Ottawa seems to think he’s actually good despite all evidence to the contrary.

Further evidence for this arises when you think about the rumors surrounding Ceci the past few years. And that highlights a bigger problem in this league, quite frankly, because it’s not just Ottawa (a dumb, poorly run organization by just about any measure) that overvalues Ceci; there are rumors that Tampa tried to go Drouin-for-Ceci straight up during the Drouin holdout and Ottawa wouldn’t do it. Now, maybe they were scared off by the holdout thing, but also maybe they just thought Ceci provided more value than Drouin.

Edmonton Oilers defenseman <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5365/" data-ylk="slk:Adam Larsson">Adam Larsson</a>. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

It appears to me that the latter is more likely, because there were also rumors that the Oilers tried to go Hall-for-Ceci straight up and were likewise rebuffed. While the Hall-for-Larsson trade already hasn’t worked out well for Edmonton, this one would have been one hell of a lot worse for Peter Chiarelli.

But again, if the Larsson deal was the fallback position there, doesn’t that tell you the Oilers not only thought Ceci provided roughly equivalent value to Taylor Hall, but also that he was perhaps better than Adam Larsson? And because the Senators rejected that deal, they thought Ceci was better (or at least better in terms of their spending needs)?

Ceci is a guy who gets eye-tested to death, right? He gets most of his non-neutral-zone draws in the defensive end and he takes the hard matchups, with his most common opponents this season being Sasha Barkov and Auston Matthews. So by that token, no wonder he doesn’t score and no wonder he gets smoked in the underlying numbers.

But should this not tell you something about his quality? We know for sure he can’t play against top competition without getting his brains beaten in with a rock, but it has apparently never occurred to anyone in the Senators organization that maybe this guy can be good in a shutdown role that isn’t against some of the best players in the league every single night. Has it not crossed Guy Boucher’s mind that maybe 23 minutes a night is entirely too many? Do they think it was a coincidence that Ceci had his best seasons when he was only playing about 19 minutes a night?

It’s the Justin Schultz argument, to an extent. When Schultz was a “bust” for Edmonton, it was because they thought he was a No. 1 or 2 defenseman, and he wasn’t close to that good. He eventually got run out of town for the crime of not living up to outsized expectations, which were largely based on things outside his control. But in Ottawa, not only does Ceci likewise prove he’s not good enough to skate with the elites, but the Senators don’t see that as a problem at all. (Other teams might still feel that way, but now that Ceci isn’t in the midst of or coming off a 10-goal season at 22, both Chiarelli and Steve Yzerman probably feel like they dodged a serious bullet.)

However, his continued failure to produce somehow only increases his value to the Senators, though I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s been north of 110 hits each of the past two seasons.

Anyone with half a brain knows that Ceci isn’t worth $6 million or anything close to it. His career high in points is still just 26, and he hasn’t come close to approaching 10 goals since the time he lucked into that number. But if the Senators consider his value to be something in the area of $3.5 million AAV short-term, one can probably expect his cap hit to be larger than that in the long term.

That would put him somewhere in the No. 3 defenseman range in terms of his AAV compared with all his peers league-wide, which might not be a bad number for him if he were actually used as a No. 3. Could Ceci, like Schultz, succeed in a lesser role? Probably. But for now all we can reasonably conclude is that he’s being overused and it’s killing his team, whether they acknowledge it or not.

The point of a bridge deal, after all, is to keep the price tag down on a guy you’re not sure about. Ceci has failed just about every test put in front of him, so a small raise might even be too kind. But because of how he’s been talked about and used, it’s hard to blame the player for trying to get a truck full of money backed up to his driveway.

It’s one thing to repeatedly use a guy in a role for which he is tragicomically ill-suited, but once you have to pay through the nose to do it, that’s when it gets to be a real problem.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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