Cody Ceci: The Most Misunderstood Hockey Player in the World

The polarizing right-handed defenseman is talked about a lot, and often for the wrong reasons. So how can we make sense of his game?

When it comes to hockey, the people of Toronto and Ottawa do not agree on many things. After all, these two cities have been rivals in the hockey world for almost three decades. One thing that Leafs and Senators fans can often agree on, however, is that Cody Ceci has no place in the NHL. They’ll say that he’s frustrating to watch, that he makes mistakes any coach would be furious about, and he doesn’t provide much, nee, any value as a defenseman.

Cody Ceci getting traded from Ottawa to Toronto before the 2019-20 season didn’t change many fans’ opinions on him. In fact, when Leafs Nation watched Ceci in the blue and white, almost all of its members came to the conclusion that he was the same player that the vast majority of Senators fans had wanted banished from Ottawa as soon as possible.

That’s besides the point. I’m here to tell you that Cody Ceci provides value, and a lot more than you might expect. I’m not going to tell you that Cody Ceci is an analytical darling, or that it makes sense for Toronto to keep him, or that he’s a top-pair defenseman, or even a top-4 one for that matter, because to me, he’s not. What I will do, however, is address the strong parts of Cody Ceci’s game, and how I believe teams can maximize what they get out of him on the ice, using my visualizations.

Below is an overview of Ceci’s 2019-20 season:

I’m sure the most surprising aspect of this visual is the defense section. You are reading that right: Cody Ceci had a lower xGA/60 than 90% of NHL defensemen in 2019-20. He was also considerably above-average at preventing shot quantity against, and ranked in the 92nd percentile among all NHL skaters in Expected Standings Points Above Replacement in the category of even-strength defense. His denial rate isn’t very good, however; he’s quite leaky at the blueline, and his defensive prowess pretty much disappears on the penalty kill. He isn’t good enough defensively to offset how bad he is offensively or on the penalty kill, hence the negative market value and poor xSPAR.

I’m going to make a bold statement right now: Cody Ceci is not bad defensively. You can see, from a suppression standpoint, Ceci is one of the best defensemen the Leafs have. Shot suppression is a big part of defense, but it isn’t all of it, and I’m going to probe into Ceci’s defensive game in more detail later.

Here’s what Cody Ceci is not: An offensive defenseman. He is one of the worst in the league in among blueliners in terms of generating shots, specifically ones of quality, and unsurprisingly, he doesn’t get the results to mask that problem. A whopping 99% of NHL skaters provided more value on offense at even-strength than he did. The one area Ceci provides value outside of shot suppression is in the neutral zone, as he ranks above average in terms of passes that lead to zone entries, and carrying the puck into the offensive zone himself. Once the puck is in the offensive zone, however? Don’t expect much.

I watched almost every single Leafs game of this season, and I found myself being frustrated with Ceci in the defensive zone. A few of the reasons as to why Ceci looks a lot worse defensively using the eye test are:

-He doesn’t do anything offensively, so it’s a lot easier to notice him in the d-zone than in the o-zone

-He can’t exit the zone very well, so he’s stuck in his own zone often

-He only defends well in his own zone. He doesn’t guard against transitions whatsoever

These points are emphasized more when we go into his defensive profile in-depth:

Again, from a suppression standpoint, he isn’t bad. But once we throw in anything to do with transitions, whether it be opposing zone entries or defensive zone exits, he isn’t as strong in that regard.

However, there is one more reason Ceci’s defensive play in 2019-20 was very unappealing to watch, and it should be emphasized more than any of the three points listed above: A lot of it has to do with his teammates. Of all Leafs defensemen in 2019-20, Ceci played the most with Morgan Rielly. Rielly is a highly-skilled player and a top-tier offensive threat, but he’s also one of the worst defensive blueliners in the NHL.

NOTE: It is important to note that Rielly missed 2 months of the season due to injury, which plays a factor in his deflated xSPAR totals.

Rielly checks almost every box. Over the last two seasons, I’d go so far as to say he’s been the best offensive defenseman in the NHL. He can move the puck as well as any defender in the league as well, while generating a lot of shots and passes on the powerplay. But when it comes down to actual defending, an elite player he is not.

Human tendency is to blame Cody Ceci for this pair’s defensive mishaps because he can’t exit the defensive zone as well as Rielly can, and unlike Rielly, Ceci isn’t a world-class offensive weapon, which means he can’t offset the pair’s defensive deficiencies. Something that is very important to remember in this case study is that Rielly is good enough offensively to offset how bad he is defensively. Ceci, on the other hand, isn’t good enough defensively to offset how bad he is offensively. This fact is on full display when we look at the pair as a group:

This pair’s ability to generate offense and exit the defensive zone relies entirely on Morgan Rielly. But their inability to defend is Rielly’s fault. The “overall” section of the above visual is hilarious to me, because Morgan Rielly is able to offset how bad he is defensively, and he almost is able to offset how bad his defense partner is offensively too, using just his unbelievable offensive ability. Considering each player’s individual ability in terms of offense and defense, being in the 41st percentile for quality shot share isn’t that bad.

Essentially, bringing Morgan Rielly into this conversation is meant to act as an explanation for why Cody Ceci is actually good defensively (in his own zone, at least). A lot of the times you think you witness Cody Ceci make a mistake defensively, it’s because the whole play was able to develop thanks in part to a previous mistake by Morgan Rielly. Rielly wasn’t Ceci’s only d-partner throughout the season, but him being so weak in his own end is a big reason as to why people see Cody Ceci as this unmistakable defensive liability.

So, this raises a few questions: How can Cody Ceci be deployed so that his defensive strengths actually reward his team? Where would he fit best in a lineup? How is it possible to get the most out of a defenseman whose only elite quality is quality shot suppression?

Here’s another bit of information about Cody Ceci: He wasn’t always good defensively. In fact, he was what one would consider the opposite of a two-way player until this season: He didn’t provide much value on offense or defense, and was around replacement level for most of his tenure there. But his first, and what will likely be his only, season in Toronto exposed a few things.

See, in hindsight, it wasn’t the worst idea to pair Ceci with Rielly to start the season. Rielly can move the puck and is an offensive dynamo, so it wasn’t the most unreasonable thing to think that his offensive ability would rub off on Ceci. Prior to 2019-20, it was a foregone conclusion that Ceci couldn’t play defense, but Rielly was even worse than him in that regard. In Ottawa, Ceci played with Ben Harpur for a good chunk of time. Harpur, now out of the league, was just like Ceci during his time in a Sens uniform: No offense, no defense, and had a detrimental on-ice impact on the team. With the Leafs, Ceci now had a different role: Play with the offensive wizard, let him play to his strengths, and at least try to provide stability on the back end, because Rielly can’t. This actually worked for Ceci, but not for the pair. Ceci provided value on defense, but Rielly continued to be such a liability in that regard that, as a group, the pair was still a negative in their own end.

There are two takeaways for me in this situation: One is that the Leafs exposed that Cody Ceci is very capable in his own zone. The other is that Morgan Rielly is not the right defense partner for him because Ceci’s defensive capabilities couldn’t mask Rielly’s defensive weaknesses. Using what we’ve now established about Cody Ceci’s 2019-20 season, I’m going to outline what I believe is the best theoretical option as to how to deploy Cody Ceci so that his strengths end up having the greatest impact on his team.

First of all, let’s address zone starts: Ceci should not be starting in the offensive zone at all. He doesn’t generate any shots and is a non-factor when it comes to helping his team score. Whether or not he should start in the neutral zone is sort of a toss-up, because he’s really leaky in terms of guarding opposing transitions, but he’s shown he can carry the puck into the offensive zone well. Realistically, Ceci is best off starting in the neutral zone only with his team’s best faceoff guys on the ice. He started 11% of his shifts in the d-zone in 2019-20, and that number should rise by about 5% if the goal is to let him play to his strengths here.

We know that Ceci is a non-factor offensively, but he’s got to have a defense partner who is considerably better in his own zone than Ceci was in his final year in Ottawa. In theory, you’d think Ceci would only be able to benefit his team if his partner is close to his level defensively, which was not the case in Toronto with Rielly. Some players who were terrible offensively but strong defensively like Ceci in 2019-20 include Dallas's Andrej Sekera, Carolina’s Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and Columbus’s Dean Kukan. In short, based on his performance this past season, I believe Cody Ceci would benefit most in a role in which he’d play around 16-17 minutes a night, on a defense-focused pair, with a partner similar to him in terms of play style, on a team that doesn’t rely a lot on its offense for success. Dallas and Boston fit the last bit of criteria; I’m just throwing their names out their for the sake of context. I also wouldn’t trust him much on the penalty kill, but he did contribute to Ottawa’s powerplay in the past.

I believe the Leafs’ fanbase treats Cody Ceci unfairly, because he did provide value to the team in 2019-20, but it didn’t end up benefiting the team that much, which wasn’t really his fault. He isn’t perfect, but he’s a capable defender, and more people would realize that if he were deployed in a way that would allow his team to benefit from his strengths the most. Because the Leafs rely a lot on offense, I don’t think he’s a good fit there, but I hope other teams take a chance on this player in free agency, because Cody Ceci has finally proven to be a valuable defenseman - ironically, he’s done so in the area of his game that most people perceive to be his biggest weakness.