From the expected to the shocking, a lot of things happened for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Canada Day, and it’s safe to say that General Manager Kyle Dubas’ vision for the franchise is starting to unfold. The Leafs finalized a trade with Ottawa, confirmed two signings, made two more and caused tremors in the hockey world with one last blockbuster deal with the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night. First, let’s address the most anticipated transaction of the bunch.
It was a deal that cleared out the most substantial of the team’s cap concerns, at least in the long term. After what’s felt like a year of shopping, and weeks since a formal trade quest was put into motion, the Maple Leafs sent Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and Michael Carcone to the Ottawa Senators for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk, and a 2020 third round pick.
The most important part of the deal, obviously, was shedding Zaitsev’s contract, and if you subscribe to the belief that management needs to take away a few of the bench’s toys, his minutes. Zaitsev, who was paid a lump sum of $3,000,000 in real dollars before the trade was made official, carries a cap hit for $4.5 million for five more seasons. Due to Zaitsev’s lack of production since falling off the powerplay depth chart in his sophomore season, his lack of a substantial neutral zone and puck possession game since slowed down by a concussion, foot injury, and illness in the 2016/17 playoffs and 2017/18 regular season, many felt that the contract would be problematic to the organization moving forward, and that it was in their best interests to move it.
I was one of those people, despite being one of Zaitsev’s original backers and continued Devil’s Advocate makers. Toronto’s salary commitment to their star nucleus (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen, and hopefully Mitch Marner) means that, while the team is able to spend cap space on other roster players, the risks should ideally be minimal – be it through a proven track record in the role they’re to be placed in, or a low cost (via a combination of salary and/or term) if the player doesn’t work out.
I suspect that this is why Toronto was involved in the PK Subban sweepstakes before Nashville found a no-retention suitor (a proven player), and why they didn’t try to outbid the Sabres for Colin Miller (who has done well in sheltered minutes, but hasn’t been a focal part of a defensive core and has a prohibitive contract if it doesn’t work out). I also suspect that this is why it was best to get out of Zaitsev’s contract while he still had perceived value, in case that disappeared and they were still stuck with 3 to 4 years of his deal.
Thankfully, the Senators were one of the teams that best fit the bill of “needing committed minutes”, something that Zaitsev has delivered with his usage over the past few years. They also had a backer of his in new Head Coach and former Leafs assistant DJ Smith, and a plan to sign Ron Hainsey, who also departed from the Leafs organization today and spent plenty of penalty kill and lead-defending time with Zaitsev in Toronto.
Moving Zaitsev out did require some minutes to come back in, however. As the focal point of the return, the Leafs get back one of the most polarizing players in the entire league in Cody Ceci. Drafted 15th overall by Ottawa in 2012, the 25-year-old defenceman has eaten minutes like few others in the NHL over the past three years, averaging 23:03 per game.
To many of the old-school hockey types, this makes Ceci a noteworthy asset, while the analytics community looks at his underlying outputs and sees one of the worst play-drivers in the game.
I’ve written about Ceci in the past, most notably during his arbitration saga last summer. His ice time is the reason why he continues to get significant paycheques – his qualifying offer this year comes in at $4.3 million and there is talk that the Leafs will settle on a 1-year deal with him at around that price – but it’s also putting him in a position to fail. Ottawa’s defensive corps have been notoriously top-heavy in his time with the team, which often lead to him taking whatever tough minutes they couldn’t hand to Erik Karlsson or Thomas Chabot – and often with a partner who barely deserved NHL minutes.
This year, Ceci played the majority of his minutes with Maxime Lajoie – a 21-year-old who likely wouldn’t make very many other NHL rosters. He also spent noteworthy amounts of time with Christan Wolanin and Mark Borowiecki, who are of similar pedigrees to Lajoie (Wolanin maybe a tier above). Just 21% of his 5-on-5 minutes came with Chabot, and both were each other’s best partner, putting up a 52% shot attempt differential together (Ceci was 41% without Chabot, and Chabot was 47% with Ceci).
The reality very well could be here that Ceci has been tasked with being a #2 defenceman when he really shouldn’t be – think a younger, more mobile equivalent to what happened with Ron Hainsey in Toronto over the past few years.
The latter point is what really intrigues me, in the sense that Ceci’s qualitative traits are in-line with the modern game. Usually, when you hear about an “analytics bad, eye test good” defenceman, it’s a big, slow guy who likes to block shots and make cross-checks, but in Ceci’s case, we’re talking about a reasonably good skater, a solid passer (who even has decent underlying metrics in that regard according to Ryan Stimson’s passing project), a player with a willingness to hop into the rush, and an okay puck carrier. I’ve wondered for years now whether Ceci could thrive in a situation where he has a bit of help and a bit less responsibility – something Toronto can give him off the hop now with Morgan Rielly, Tyson Barrie, Jake Muzzin, and Travis Dermott ahead of him in the depth chart.
The big concern with Ceci is his contract. Toronto seems to be willing to get something done now, given his ability to take the 1-year qualifying offer. If those reports don’t age well and he does elect for arbitration, that opens up new avenues for the Leafs – allowing them to flat out walk away if they don’t like the number or like someone else they can acquire at that number more.
My guess, though, is that he’ll sign in that $4-4.5 million threshold for the year, he’ll be given an opportunity to play minutes he’s better suited to with better teammates than he’s previously had, and the Leafs will go from there. If he succeeds, but one or both of Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin do well enough in the AHL to deserve a call-up, I could see Ceci moved mid-season to clear cap and gain assets to use in a secondary deadline move, or if they really nail this reclamation project and add real value to his perceived value, get back into the first round of the draft.
Also heading to Ottawa in this deal is Connor Brown, which is a bit bittersweet but continues in the trend of taking away the toys. Brown is a player that’s repeatedly beaten the odds given to him through hard work and a nose for high-opportunity areas on the ice, though his role has morphed over the past few seasons. Once a hundred point OHL forward, a 60 point AHL forward, and a 20-goal NHL rookie, the Leafs have used him in a mid-to-bottom six defensive displacement forward’s role since 2017/18, which has led to an offensive decline.
The Senators, for better or worse, will be able to give Brown much more ice time and offensive opportunity, likely looking to him to be the playmaker he was not long ago. And while Brown’s $2.1 million cap hit wasn’t super friendly to the Leafs for the types of minutes he was expected to play for them, it’s very friendly for the type of player he is, which is why he carried interest throughout the league and is believed to be the sweetener that pushed this deal forward.
In terms of the smaller pieces that come back to Toronto in this deal, I’m not expecting a heck of a lot. Ben Harpur has spent most of the last two seasons up with the Senators, and is pretty terrible at the NHL level. He’s an example of the big, physical defenceman that today’s game is passing by, and the end result is a 6’7 physical player who struggles in all ways with the puck, and bleeds shots against even the softest of competition. He might find a home on the Marlies, by virtue of having some success in the AHL in the past and being a left-handed shot (which, believe it or not, is the rarer commodity in the minors for Toronto). Aaron Luchuk was somewhat effective for the Brampton Beast last year, and will likely end up reporting to the Growlers unless he has a strong AHL camp.
Overall, this trade makes a lot of sense for the Leafs organization at large. There are a lot of players involved in both directions in need of changes of scenery, and for the Leafs, it frees up all sorts of cap flexibility after this year. The best case scenario is that they make something out of Ceci to get legitimate value back from this deal, but at worst, they’ve taken away some of the coaching staff’s toys and cleared half a decade of salary aggravation, while giving some support players a new lease on life not far away from home.---
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