Edmonton Oilers Defence: Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci Better Than Advertised

Edmonton Oilers defence
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This past offseason, general manager Ken Holland disassembled and reassembled the Edmonton Oilers defence. Regulars such as Ethan Bear, Adam Larsson, and Caleb Jones all exited town, while two notable – and quite controversial – additions moved in: Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci.

The first of which was Duncan Keith. He arrived in Edmonton, with his full contract, in exchange for Jones. Then, just a couple of weeks later in free agency, Cody Ceci made the jump to the Oilers. With those two moves, Edmonton had a completely rebuilt second pairing on their blue line.

Early predictions were grim. Aside from the cost of the Keith trade, several reports emerged out of Chicago of a washed-up, slow-footed veteran who would be lucky to dress, let alone stick in the top-four.

Ceci received similar reviews. For years, Ceci had been a whipping boy for the Ottawa Senators as he broke into the league. A down-year for the Toronto Maple Leafs on top of that didn’t help him either. His most recent year for the Pittsburgh Penguins had some up-arrows, but the gloom of disappointing play in two Canadian hockey hot-beds wasn’t going to be overshadowed.

What’s emerged since those early predictions has been surprising, at least to most observers. The pairing of Keith and Ceci hasn’t been bad at all. In fact, it’s been pretty good to the point of deserving recognition. Let’s take a look at how this unorthodox pairing has found success in Edmonton and how that may continue.

Edmonton Oilers Defence: Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci If It Works, It Works

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick.

As of February 4th, the Oilers have played 42 games. In 33 of those games, Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci have suited up on the same pair. In total, they’ve played 468 minutes together. That’s the most of any pairing this season for the Edmonton Oilers defence. The only other pairing that even comes close, and it does come close with 465 minutes together, is Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard.

A quick glance at the 5v5 numbers shows some interesting themes emerging.

Corsi For % Fenwick For % Expected Goals % Goals For PDO
Keith & Ceci 49.8 48.8 48.7 47.6 (20-22) 0.998
Nurse & Bouchard 57.1 56.8 57.1 45.4 (15-18) 0.975

It’s quite clear that in terms of shot metrics, the first pair of Nurse and Bouchard is well-ahead. With those two on the ice, Edmonton is controlling possession at a rapid rate. The Keith and Ceci pairing is a little shy in this regard. 48-49% isn’t a bad metric, but it’s definitely not as shimmering and shiny as a mark north of 55%.

Digging in a bit deeper, however, their ability to hang right on the cusp of 50% is still impressive.

Digging Deeper into the Keith and Ceci Pairing

Let’s first consider the fact that the Keith and Ceci pairing is only starting 38% of its shifts in the offensive zone. This compares to 50% for the Nurse and Bouchard pairing. Coach Dave Tippett is using Keith and Ceci in a defensive role, forcing them to have to work their way up the ice on a more consistent basis.

Additionally, the time that each of these pairings spends with Edmonton’s biggest stars is a big factor. The Nurse and Bouchard pairing has spent only 152 of their 465 5v5 minutes without one of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl on the ice. That’s only about 33% of their time without one of Edmonton’s best on the ice with them.

Compare that with Keith and Ceci. They’ve comparatively spent 214 minutes away from both McDavid and Draisaitl. That’s 45% of their time spent away from Edmonton’s stars, close to half of their total time on ice.

This helps explain some of the discrepancies in shot totals. In relation to the top pairing, Keith and Ceci are spending more of their time starting away from the offensive zone, plus more of their time away from Edmonton’s two best players.

Despite this disadvantage, Keith and Ceci actually lead Nurse and Bouchard in terms of 5v5 goal differential percentage. They also lead in terms of 5v5 goals scored while on the ice, with an advantage of 20 to 15.

Keith and Ceci are overcoming bigger hurdles and are just barely behind breaking even in goals while outperforming their top-pairing counterparts in 5v5 goal differential. That’s a testament to their success as a duo.

Success the Old Fashioned Way

In a more traditional sense, Keith and Ceci are performing strongly as well. Keith currently sits with one goal and 14 points (33 GP), while Ceci has one goal and 12 points (38 GP). Those aren’t set your house on fire numbers, but they are roughly equal or more production (in terms of points per game) than regular forwards such as Kailer Yamamoto, Warren Foegele, Zack Kassian, and Derek Ryan, to name a few.

Additionally, neither Keith nor Ceci have a power play point, meaning all of their production is coming at even strength. In fact, Keith’s 14 even strength points have him ahead of the likes of Darnell Nurse, Dougie Hamilton, and Torey Krug in that same metric. Even Cody Ceci’s 12 even strength points have him ahead of players like John Klingberg and Erik Gustafsson.

This solid level of production derives from the unique abilities that each player brings to the table.

For Keith, it is his playmaking ability that is helping him pile up the assists. Take for example this excellent tape-to-tape laser, setting up a McDavid goal, from back in December.

For Ceci, it is his surprising instincts to stay in the play at the offensive blue line or to join the play as he did on Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals.

In Conclusion

For both Keith and Ceci to be averaging just over 20 minutes of ice-time a night, with next to no power play time, while performing admirably in possession, goals for, and individual even-strength scoring is a success story.

Add in the fact that they are doing it while playing almost half of their time without McDavid or Draisaitl and with a vicious slant towards non-offensive zone starts and it becomes even more impressive.

There are definitely things that these two can do to improve. They both tend to give up their own blue line too much, leading to chances off of the rush. Plus, neither of them is as adept at shutting down the cycle as one would hope. Lastly, Keith is still finding his range in terms of risk management, which at times can be costly.

Still, the overall results are telling. In Keith and Ceci, the Edmonton Oilers defence have a successful second pairing, one that they can likely feel comfortable utilizing for the duration of their second-half playoff chase. That’s a major positive for Edmonton and one that is much better than initially hoped when these two arrived in town.

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