It was like found money—ground score. The Pittsburgh Penguins hoped defenseman Mike Matheson could reverse his career course. And they signed bargain-basement free agent Cody Ceci to eat some minutes and provide depth.
Injuries and merit paired Ceci and Matheson together in February. Both were Twitter pariahs prior to their Penguins tenure. There was no shortage of complaints about Ceci’s signing after the Toronto Maple Leafs fandom got done with him, and plenty of criticism of the Penguins trade that brought Matheson to Pittsburgh for the very popular Patric Hornqvist.
And then things clicked.
Matheson and Ceci didn’t put up career totals in the shortened 56-game season, but they did create their share of offensive pressure. In the regular season, they had 55% of the high-danger scoring chances and 62% of the goals. In the playoffs, they continued their pressure with 60% of the scoring chances against the New York Islanders.
In the regular season, the Penguins were the second-highest scoring team in the league and had a top-five goal differential.
After an eight-year career of mostly red numbers in the plus/minus category, Ceci did set a career-best +18 and tied a career-low with only 15 giveaways in 53 games.
It wasn’t Ceci. Or Matheson. But Ceci and Matheson.
Matheson is signed for five more seasons at $4.8 million. The eight-year contract was signed as his standout rookie year.
But after a couple of down years and a few heavily criticized years in the Twitterverse, Ceci was well above board. The RHD had a career resurgence and more good press since his early days as a first-round pick and the counterbalance to Erik Karlsson in Ottawa.
Of course, if the Penguins let Ceci walk, that would open a RHD spot to add physicality.
So what is Cody Ceci worth as a free agent?
The Pittsburgh Penguins have every reason to wait to sign Ceci, at least until after the July 21 Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
If the Penguins wait until after the draft, they get to protect Matheson without losing him or Ceci–because both couldn’t be protected.
Ceci scored 17 points (4-13-17) in 53 games with his big plus/minus score. In a singular season, he would command somewhere in the $4.5 million range. See also: Marino, John.
However, the 27-year-old d-man has had good and bad and stretches.
“I think I’m a two-way defenseman. Kind of got away from that a little bit for (2019-20), so just looking to add that offensive side back a little more,” said Ceci said when he signed in October. “Always been pretty steady defensively and play hard, so that’ll be there.”
By the looks of the 2020 NHL free-agent market, Ceci could get P-A-I-D.
On the high end, T.J. Brodie signed a four-year deal for $20 million ($5 million AAV). Chris Tanev got a four-year deal worth $4.5 million.
On the low end of comparable defensemen, Justin Schultz earned a two-year deal worth $8 million ($4 million AAV), Radko Gudas inked for $2.5 million per season for three years, and Kevin Shattenkirk got $3.9 million per year for three years.
Ceci obviously ranked behind those players in 2020 as he got only $1.25 million from the Penguins.
After this season, the “show-me” deal Ceci signed becomes a benefit.
If Gudas is worth $2.5 million, then Ceci can set the floor there and work his way up. In 2019, Ben Chiarot signed for $3.5 million with the Montreal Canadiens, and problematic Colorado Avalanche d-man Patrick Nemeth got $2.5 million.
If sides compromise, the Chiarot deal is probably where Ceci lands. Ceci is solidly worth $3.5 million for a few years. Defensemen can get big contracts at 30-years-old, so a three-year deal sets Ceci up for another big payday and perhaps gets him past the flat salary cap, which figures to last for a few more seasons.
Though, if someone will cough up $3.5 million, then someone will be asked to pony up $4 million, and that team just might.
Seattle will play a role for many teams; Seattle will take players, which will create needs for some teams, and Seattle will take players with salary from other teams, which creates cap space for those potential buyers.
The free-agent landscape is still unknown, but we do know the UFA class is not exactly a bumper crop. Alec Martinez headlines the class, followed by David Savard (30-years-old), Alex Edler (35), Jamie Oleksiak (28), and Ian Cole (32).
Dougie Hamilton is currently involved in a sign-and-trade potential scenario, but he’s a big-ticket item that won’t affect the rank-and-file membership.
So, what’s Ceci worth? Much of that depends on how the Pittsburgh Penguins play the situation, and what others thought of his rebound season.
We’re projecting a three-year, $3.75 million AAV.