A number of analytics supporters aren’t going to be convinced that the pairing of Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci has been very good for the Oilers. In fact, it will take a while, even if the numbers start to sway in this pairing’s favor for the naysayers to come around. Still, Keith and Ceci have been effective in a second-pairing role for Edmonton as the Oilers are off to a 7-1 start this season.
The plan coming in was to see if Keith could be effective with fewer minutes than last year in Chicago. The argument was that he was playing well over an ideal amount on a team that needed better defense and he was their only legitimate option. For Ceci, it was about whether or not he was as good as he showed in Pittsburgh, or if he’d regress to what it appeared he was a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators — an offensive-minded blueliner that wasn’t incredibly stable in his own end.
Were the Oilers Right to Bank on Keith and Ceci This Season?
It’s still too early in the 2021-22 campaign to judge whether the Keith and Ceci additions are considered a win, but so far, things have been looking up. Keith has played between 17 and 21 minutes per night and scored his first goal as an Oiler on Monday. He’s got two points on the season and he’s being used in the role the Oilers envisioned for him. He’s been a calming influence, a veteran leader and he’s killing penalties on the third-best penalty-killing team in the NHL.
Ceci has matched Keith in the minute’s department fairly closely and has one assist on the year. He seems to be a steady and poised defenseman who isn’t especially noticeable, which in his line of work is a good thing. He too is killing penalties, third on the team with an average of 2:22 per game.
Keith and Ceci Have Taken Mostly Defensive Zone Starts
One of the reasons Adam Larsson was so underappreciated (eventually fans came to admire what he brought) was because he was forced to take on a lot of the difficult and thankless tasks, including defensive zone starts. That role has now been given to Keith and Ceci, a role that is bound to skew the numbers towards the negative.
As Daniel Nugent-Bowman of The Athletic writes, both defensemen started five out of every six shifts in the defensive zone through the first five games. Head coach Dave Tippett has purposely used them in that role and noted, “They understand what we’re doing. They read situations well.” He called it part of their job and while it’s not a job anyone really wants, both defensemen understand the role they’ve been given and they do an effective job with it. As Tippett pointed out earlier this week, he and the Oilers keep their own advanced stats (stats he says are the ones that matter) and he feels comfortable with Ceci and Keith on the ice in less-than-deal conditions.
Monday was the first time Keith and Ceci weren’t asked to start more often in the d-zone than the offensive zone. It helped their numbers. By the time the game was said and done, shot attempts were equal (11-11) between the Oilers and the Seattle Kraken when Ceci and Keith were on the ice at five-on-five. “Scoring chances were a wash, too,” writes Nugent-Bowman.
It’s Not Perfect, But There’s Still Time
The numbers could be better, but both men know there’s time. Keith and Ceci have had only seven games to learn each other’s tendencies and work together in the toughest situations on the ice. Both know there’s growing to do but both believe that comfort level will come.
“We’re trying to learn off each other as quick as possible. He thinks the game at such a high level. It’s cool to get a chance to play with a guy like that, with so much experience. He knows what it takes to win. I’m just trying to follow his lead back there and try to help each other as much as possible and do a job for our team.”source – ‘Why Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci have fit in well with the Oilers so far: ‘They understand what we’re doing’ – Daniel Nugent-Bowman – 11/02/2021
So while it’s not perfect, the Keith and Ceci duo is coming out ahead. They were on the ice for two Oilers goals at five-on-five on Monday and the Nugent-Bowman notes, “At five-on-five, the Oilers are attempting 46 percent of the shots but are narrowly outscoring their opponents 6-4 with Keith and 6-5 with Ceci on the ice in just over 130 minutes.”
Most importantly, the team winning and the group is comfortable with that duo back in their defensive zone taking on the most difficult of jobs. Players have repeatedly talked about how stable that pairing has been and while that’s not necessarily reflected in the numbers, knowing that your linemates have trust that you can handle the tough jobs has to be a big boost for the entire team.
Ceci and Keith may never get the appreciation they deserve, but if the Oilers keep winning and the pairing gets more comfortable, it’s clear they’ll be an important part of a successful season.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”