OTTAWA — They’ve both been major minute-eaters who drew tough assignments and became lightning rods for criticism.
The chance appears to be there. The six-player trade completed on July 1 was motivated as much by salary cap maneuvering as the transfer of assets between the Leafs and Senators, but each team received a right-shot defenceman that it will drop immediately into the top-four as part of that transaction.
“We believe that he’s just scratching the surface,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of Ceci.
“You know what? He’s been great,” Senators coach D.J. Smith said of Zaitsev. “He competes in practice and I expect he’ll be very good for us this year.”
It must be noted that this is a hopeful month on the NHL calendar. Flowers are still in full bloom and no one’s lost a game that matters.
But there’s also something to be said for a fresh start when you’re the local kid who gets drafted in the first round and arrives in the NHL as a teenager carrying huge expectations. A lot was asked of Ceci during a tumultuous six seasons for the Senators organization, and he felt the increasing wrath of fans and media while playing 23 minutes a night on a last-place team drowning in shot attempts.
“That kind of came on the last couple years and it was a little frustrating,” said Ceci. “You don’t like to think that it was only me that everything was falling upon and there was a lot of different things that happened, a lot of moving pieces in the last couple years. I was the steady guy that stayed behind and grinded it out.
“That was tough — tough at times.”
The Leafs are intent to ease the burden, uniting him with Morgan Rielly while asking him to focus on being the steady conscience of the pairing. They handled a monster workload in Wednesday’s 4-3 exhibition loss to Ottawa — a game where both defencemen joined Auston Matthews in wearing an ‘A’ — but will likely line up as the second pairing behind Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie once things get going for real.
Ceci had a knot in his stomach while making an early return to Canadian Tire Centre but looked surprisingly comfortable once the puck dropped. “I was definitely nervous coming into the game and didn’t feel great getting off the plane,” he said.
In Babcock’s eyes he was “steady,” which amounts to a compliment given what the Leafs will be asking of their No. 4 defenceman this season.
“It’ll be a more of a supporting role and play as well as I can defensively,” said Ceci. “Still join [the rush] when I get a chance, but primarily just to move the puck and play well with [Rielly].”
Zaitsev was evidently in need of his own reboot after requesting a trade from the Leafs two years into a seven-year contract. A serious guy who is known to be hard on himself, he’s never publicly revealed what motivated the trade request — although he did complain about the way his play was discussed by the Toronto media during an interview with a Russian reporter after last season.
The Senators declined requests to speak with Zaitsev after he practised on Wednesday morning, and Smith indicated the 27-year-old had a say in the team’s decision not to play him in either of the exhibition games against his former team this week.
“We just wanted to hold him out and he wants to play the last four [pre-season] games,” said Smith. “I thought why not just hold him out [against Toronto] until the regular season?”
Zaitsev appears destined to start alongside Thomas Chabot and will be given more opportunity to chip in offensively with the Senators, according to his coach. He finished last year’s playoffs in a matchup role with Muzzin but his usage should look more like his first year in North America, when he put up 36 points (before dipping to 13 and 14).
“He’s a really competitive, really good — in my opinion — two-way defenceman and I think it’s fresh for him to get here and to get touches on pucks,” said Smith, the former Leafs assistant in charge of defencemen. “Maybe get a little bit of clean-up power play, some 4-on-4 and try and get some of his touch back that he had a few years ago.”
Unlike Zaitsev, who remains under contract through 2024, Ceci will be playing for his future this season.
His stay in Toronto may only last one year with unrestricted free agency on the horizon. There were some talks about signing a longer extension with his hometown Sens before the trade went down. “We weren’t really back and forth all too much, which was a little disappointing for me,” he said.
Now he is adjusting to life in a bigger city where he and his fiance only brought one car because they can walk around much easier than before. Leaving the comfort of friends and family is a work in progress after being raised here, playing four seasons for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s and another six with the Senators, but he’s already found some other benefits to being a Leaf.
“[Ottawa] will always hold a place in my heart, just starting out my NHL career there,” said Ceci. “But I’m glad to be in Toronto and have a fresh start, and to play with the players that are here.”