It’s a tale of two cities for Thomas Chabot and Cody Ceci.
Last Saturday night in parade-expecting Toronto, in front of a national audience on Hockey Night In Canada, the 21 year old Chabot calmly dangled Leafs defenseman Igor Ozhiganov and top-shelfed a goal so pretty that even the most heartbroken of Sens fans probably felt a ragged pulse for the first time in months.
A short two days later at the Boston Garden, fellow defenseman Cody Ceci had one of those mediocre games that would go largely unnoticed in most NHL cities, but for fans watching at home in Ottawa, it was another opportunity to hit the rage button on a once highly regarded prospect turned fan punching bag.
Not many teams can stop the Bruins first line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pasternak – and Ottawa was no exception on this day – but the sight of Bergeron’s hat-trick goal bouncing in off of Ceci’s skate launched a thousand and one “I told you so” tweets.
Never mind that Ceci was (awkwardly) doing the right thing in trying to cut off a cross-crease pass. Never mind that fluke bounces factor into basically every NHL game in history.
All of that doesn’t matter. At least not to Ottawa fans and Mr. Ceci. For many, Ceci will never measure up, even though nobody really knows what that measure is supposed to be.
Analytics-minded fans say they know the measure, and it’s possession time among other stats. And they may very well be right. Ceci, miscast as a shutdown defender on a thin Senators blueline, has to face Bergeron, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Steve Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and other Eastern Conference stars almost every time he steps on the ice. Which means he’s skating backwards more often than handling the puck, and when he does get it on his tape, it’s probably going high off the glass and through the neutral zone so his team can make a line change. Doesn’t make for a very compelling set of numbers.
For many, he also fails the eyeball test, which is really also just a “values” test.
We watch with our eyes but we also watch with our prejudices. We want to see what we already know, which is why analytics has cut through some of the traditional views and made everybody mad on both sides of the divide. It challenges everything we think we know and therefore it’s a threat. On the other hand analytics dismisses intangibles too easily and the eyeball test probably takes too much of it into account.
But you’re not interested in that old debate are you? I’m not.
We already know a lot about Ceci and we’re not going to part with that knowledge without a good fight. We see a minor miscue and it brings to mind hundreds from the past and suddenly that bad bounce turns into the blooper that should see him traded for a draft pick (a 2nd rounder has no blemishes – they’re friggin’ perfect).
We don’t see the routine plays that a veteran makes to be in position to halt a breakout or that vital routine pass to break out of the zone. Not the home run pass to create a breakaway, but the simple chalkboard play to get out of your zone. Ceci, and most vets, make these unremarkable plays more often than not and that’s why a coach like Guy Boucher values them. Fans only see the outliers and soon those outliers distort into the norm.
But when does reputation overshadow the on-ice play so much that the team has no choice but to move on from the player?
It’s a bit reminiscent of Jason Spezza, who was well-liked by more fans than Ceci, but still took so much heat that he wanted out of town shortly after being named captain. He felt he took more than his fair share of blame. Nothing was more stark than Spezza chasing Sidney Crosby around the net during a playoff series and getting beat so badly that it came to represent all of his shortcomings as a defensive player. Never mind that it was against the best player in the world at the time. For many fans, Spezza was a sum of his mistakes, not the superstar that he actually was and continued to be for some time.
Ceci’s bad bounce in Boston is nowhere near as dramatic or important, but you can see the track this train is running on. And it’s not pulling into Party Station anytime soon.
Ceci even recently admitted that he was expecting a role change this season with Erik Karlsson suddenly in San Jose (that’s a pretty good movie title, “Suddenly In San Jose”), but, once again, luck is not with the young Ottawa native.
That role has been offloaded to even younger players like Chabot, the out-of-nowhere Max Lajoie and pending UFA Chris Wideman. If Ceci can’t get that role right now, he’s never going to get it in Ottawa.
“If it wasn’t for bad luck….”
Meanwhile, Chabot is the fan’s new golden kid. He’s already got an organic fan nickname, which almost never happens in hockey anymore. His teammates probably call him Chabby, but the fans now refer to him as Hotsam Batcho, a Brian5or6 epiphany when a few beers prompted a deep dive into the world of anagrams (and other debaucherous activities).
It’s caught on and even Hotsam himself endorsed the name by being photographed in a custom Brian5or6 shirt with the nickname on the back. Fans swooned. Shirt sales went crazy. It was a love-in.
Unfortunately there’s no such opportunity for Ceci.
It goes a bit deeper than just stats and his perceived play on the ice (which to me is nowhere near as awful as some make it out to be, but it’s not something to celebrate either). There’s long been a sentiment that Ottawa management favoured local prospects for marketing reasons over more skilled options, but in the case of Ceci, he was one of the most highly rated defensemen in his 2012 draft class. That bugaboo may apply in other cases, but it doesn’t seem to apply here.
That he hasn’t blossomed into the offensive right-shot defenseman that many thought he would be probably comes down to playing behind Erik Karlsson on the right side. Not to mention playing behind Karlsson’s personality.
Karlsson is a natural star in every way, completely comfortable in his own skin and magnetic to even casual fans. Ceci’s only crime is having a “standard” hockey personality. He’s good at saying the right things in a rinkside interview but despite being a local star with the 67’s in junior, he’s not exactly the most requested player in media scrums. There’s no winks or moustache twirls.
Like most players, he enjoys his privacy and doesn’t seem to be clamoring to be the voice of the team. He’s well liked in the locker room by all indications and seems especially close to another fan favourite, Mark Stone.
Unlike Stone, he actually had to go through his arbitration hearing this summer and expressed some thinly veiled bitterness at what he had to hear from the team. He makes good coin this season, but it comes at some unknown personal cost.
In a fair world, Ceci would probably be seen as a “fair” player, but that’s fantasy land at this point.
Chabot has won the hearts of Sens fans, as has Stone, and it probably won’t be long before Brady Tkachuk and Alex Formenton are embraced the same way.
For Cody Ceci, the intense scrutiny will continue until something breaks, either for management or the player. He probably deserves better, but on a rebuilding team, Ceci is going to continually be put in the position where his mistakes are magnified and his good plays are unrecognized. I can only imagine how tough it has to be on his psyche. Or his family and his friends. These attacks have real ramifications. Just ask Jared Cowen, or other high draft picks before him who didn’t measure up to expectations.
I don’t know the guy but I imagine his dreams of playing in the NHL were the same as thousands before him. This was supposed to feel better.
As Rod Stewart, with his rooster haircut and red leather pants once sang non-ironically, “some guys have all the luck”.
Ceci could use some of that easy living Rod Stewart luck right now.