For some, the greatest accomplishment of the Pittsburgh Penguins buying out Jack Johnson boiled down to ending debates about his value, debates that often inspired “old-school vs. analytics” arguments.* Well, those exhausted people could only breathe a sigh of relief for so long. The Penguins brought in another lightning rod of criticism/debate by signing Cody Ceci on Saturday.
The Penguins announced that Ceci’s one-year contract carries a $1.25 million cap hit.
* – Granted, even the Penguins struggled to defend the defenseman as time and mistakes wore on.
Penguins sign Cody Ceci; expect Jack Johnson-style arguments
Frankly, it’s pretty amusing that the Penguins insist on always having at least one defenseman who works as a talking point and punchline at all times.
They acquired Erik Gudbranson, one such defenseman, and then traded him away. While that was a mistake the Penguins easily divested themselves from, they made their most egregious foray into contrarian team-building with Jack Johnson. It’s one thing to believe in Johnson, noted friend of Sidney Crosby. It was another to give him a whopping five year, $16.25 million contract. One they meekly bought out recently.
Following all of that, signing Ceci for cheap isn’t the end of the world. But it’s kind of exhausting, albeit also amusing. Maybe like the less-apocalyptic portions of 2020?
cody ceci isn’t as bad as jack johnson
but it’s still hilarious
— dom luszczyszyn (@domluszczyszyn) October 17, 2020
Sometimes it feels like there’s a “Circle of Life” feel to this. In Pittsburgh, you have the Penguins cycling analytics whipping boys in and out. The Rangers went from getting rid of Marc Staal to bafflingly using precious cap space for, you guessed it, Jack Johnson.
A matter of usage?
Yet, as the HB Analytics Newsletter discussed in detail, it’s possible that the Penguins might get something out of Ceci, 26. If you want even more to chew on, that post breaks down the very specific areas where Ceci could be useful, if not outright strong. But in this RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey alone, you can see that the Maple Leafs found some value in Ceci, at least defensively, in 2019-20:
So, could the Penguins actually get some value out of Ceci in the right role? PHT’s own Adam Gretz chimed in:
This is clearly "third-pairing" defenseman, though. And not a "we're going to call Jack Johnson a third-pairing defenseman but still play him 20 minutes" kind of third-pairing defenseman. An actual 3D (1. Letang, 2. Marino). Still though … is he better than Ruhwedel? Ehhh.
— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) October 17, 2020
Indeed, part of the trouble with teams talking themselves into the Jack Johnsons of the world is that they seem to sink more costs into such decisions. In other words, they play the flawed/just flat-out-bad defenseman far too much. Maybe because they want to stubbornly show that they’re right. Maybe because they judge defense and player value in their own curious ways.
Yet, as much as we can talk ourselves into the Penguins signing Cody Ceci not being a total disaster, it feels like a low-cost move that could provide some risks. Might Ceci take ice time away from a more versatile defenseman? Even at $1.25M, it’s possible the Penguins limited themselves a bit from using money on more dramatic improvements.
Overall, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a move, even if it remains to be seen if it’s even an incrementally good one.
The real winners, of course, are people making jokes on the Internet. That’s probably what really matters, right?
Scroll for an updated look at the Penguins’ defense.
A look at the Penguins’ defense after this offseason
Again, as PHT colleague Gretz notes, the Penguins frequently compounded the mistake of signing Jack Johnson by playing him above his level of competency. If signing Ceci ends up being another error, the hope will be that such an issue can at least be limited to the bottom pairing.
On paper, that seems like it should be the plan.
During the Qualifying round heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kris Letang most often paired with Brian Dumoulin, John Marino was to Marcus Pettersson‘s right, and Johnson found Justin Schultz as his most frequent partner.
If Letang – Dumoulin and Marino – Pettersson hold as the Penguins’ top four, then we could see a pairing of Mike Matheson and Ceci. Indeed, even the maddest of mad hockey scientists would struggle to argue that Ceci represents a better option as a right-handed defenseman than Letang or Marino.
(Uh oh, did I accidentally will that into existence?)
In addition to bringing in Matheson and now Ceci, the Penguins hired former Capitals head coach Todd Reirden. Being that the Penguins hired Reirden to oversee their defense and power play, he’ll be key to integrating Ceci. Or, if you’re a critic, maybe limiting the damage.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.