The Toronto Maple Leafs made some long awaited moves to add to their defensive corps earlier this month with the trades for right-handers Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, but only have a one-year window before GM Kyle Dubas has to make some difficult choices.
Barrie, Ceci and veteran Jake Muzzin are all unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2019-20 season and Travis Dermott’s entry-level contract expires, which means that Dubas will have to figure out how many free agents he can get under contract prior to next July.
Ceci was acquired on July 1 from the Ottawa Senators along with defenseman Ben Harpur and forward Aaron Luchuk for Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Michael Carcone. The primary motivation for the deal was to move out Zaitsev and clear the five years remaining of his seven-year, $31.5 Million contract after the Russian blueliner requested a trade after three seasons with Toronto.
With Zaitsev the only right-handed defenseman in the Leafs starting six, Dubas was looking for a righty in return and Ceci was the perfect fit. The 25-year-old was haggling over a new contract with Ottawa after a settling on a one-year deal before arbitration last summer with his hometown team and with the mass exodus ongoing with the Senators, it was logical to assume that he would be dealt at some point.
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The deal was almost immediately criticized by analytics aficionados for Ceci’s bad measurables in Ottawa, and there was hope initially that Dubas would take the blueliner to arbitration and walk away from the award to open up cap space, but that speculation was quickly shot down when he agreed to a one-year, $4.5 Million extension (the same cap hit as Zaitsev).
Although there is no way to know what defensive combinations Mike Babcock will go with at training camp and during the exhibition schedule, most observers agree that a pairing of Muzzin and Barrie would be balanced and formidable and that Ceci could start the season paired with Morgan Rielly until Travis Dermott returns and gives the Leafs head coach more options.
Ceci may simply be a one-year stopgap who replaces Zaitsev and allows top prospects Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin more time to gain experience in the American Hockey League, but his tenure in Toronto could be much longer if he plays well with his new club and has reasonable contract demands compared to the other pending free agents.
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