The penguins learned something from Jack Johnson’s experience.
This may seem strange, given that former Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford bought Johnson’s $ 16.25 million five-year deal with one hand while agreeing to an equally onerous deal with the other hand. He took on a six-year contract from Panthers defense attorney Mike Matheson for $ 29.25 million to reduce the available space for the penguins.
But even if Rutherford did not learn any lessons, the same cannot be said for the Penguins’ coaching team.
Ceci made his debut on the third pairing and eventually ended on the second as injuries opened up places higher in the line-up. Johnson, on the other hand, spent most of his two seasons alongside Kris Letang in Pittsburgh.
The penguins hoped Letang could cover Johnson’s defensive blind spots. Unfortunately, Johnson had a bigger effect on Letang than Letang had on him. Letang’s possession numbers fell with Johnson on the ice, shaking the foundations of an already unstable defensive formation.
Ceci, who struggled several seasons in Ottawa before trading sent him to the Maple Leafs in 2019-20 and the Penguins in 2020-21, suffered a similar top-pairing engagement with the Senators. His role as defender of the first pairing in Ottawa, where he topped more than 23 minutes a night, made him a groundbreaking defensive duty in front of the net.
But he’s been more reliable on the grid front in the last two seasons in Toronto and Pittsburgh, partly because of his gradually waning ice age. After all, the penguins learned from Johnson’s experience that first mating is not a place to protect a fighting defender at home.
During the 2019-20 season in Toronto, where he played an average of 8:30 p.m. per game, Ceci upgraded his game to the level of a substitute or slightly below the substitute. As TheLeafsNation wrote in the summer of 2020:
In Pittsburgh, where Ceci runs less than 19 minutes per game, those numbers have turned for the best of his career. According to Evolving Hockey, his WAR (wins against replacements) is one and his GAR (goals against replacements) has risen to 5.7, dwarfing his previous best time of 4.3 in his 2015/16 senatorial season.
On Saturday, Ceci had collected 10 points (2-8-10) since March 27th, surpassing his 2019-20 production total with the Maple Leafs in the last 13 Penguins games. However, his success is not only evident in the offensive zone.
It’s dangerous to look at this stretch of 13 games for defensive numbers only – after all, more than half of them were against teams that did well in the playoff race – but he was very solid at his position and his freebies are overall time low throughout this campaign (after collecting 0.71 freebies per game for Ottawa in 2016-17, it fell to just 0.24 in 2020-21.)
In addition, the penguins are a little better on the defensive with him than without him. Unlike in Toronto, where the team performed better on the ice in 5v5 mode without Ceci, HockeyViz’s shot charts show that Ceci’s presence effectively suppresses even shots on the net front.
Not to mention that it only makes about a quarter of what it cost the Maple Leafs. That alone changes expectations and makes his success more encouraging for the penguins.
Let’s not exaggerate what the second pairing of penguins is doing here. The combination of Ceci and Matheson still provides the worst possession statistics of the penguins’ current pairings (Petterson / Marino and Letang / Dumoulin both keep the puck on the ice most of the time, while according to Natural Stat Trick, the Ceci / Matheson- Couple fall below 50% on average.
What we are seeing from Ceci, however, is a far cry from the negative goals and wins over the substitute we saw from Jack Johnson. The fact that he was exposed in the top defensive pairing exacerbated Johnson’s struggles averaging -7.9 goals against replacements and -2.9 wins against replacements in his two seasons with the Penguins.
Ceci has emerged as an above-average option among Pittsburgh’s defensive pairings, while the pairing of Dumoulin and Letang alone has made the two the most dependable puck bearers for the penguins at the far end.
Ceci is an interesting addition to a number of differently successful defense rehabilitation projects. And at $ 1.25 million, it could become an unexpected bargain for the second couple.