Truth By Numbers: Evaluating improvement of Maple Leafs’ Cody Ceci

GM Kyle Dubas says Cody Ceci has played above expectations, despite what the critics might be saying, and that he has a lot of belief in Tyson Barrie, and thinks he'll break out really soon.

Sometimes you make a bold prediction, and it doesn’t turn out very well. There’s lots of season left to play out, but my assumption that Robin Lehner would struggle in Chicago under the extra pressure provided by the terrible team defence in front of him compared to what he saw in his breakout season with the New York Islanders is turning up poorly.

Lehner has been working hard at proving his doubters wrong since he got help and became a mental health advocate, and this season so far might be his most impressive yet.

SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

After a powerhouse season as a platoon goaltender on Long Island, it was sort of shocking to see so little opportunity for Lehner this summer. Maybe teams wanted to see if Lehner could reproduce last season’s spectacular numbers outside of Barry Trotz’s system. I know I was doubtful, but so far, he’s easily equaled it.

Last season, Lehner finished with a .930 save percentage. Through 10 games, he’s sitting at a .934 but there’s a lot more to it than simply being consistent — just look at the difference in shots he’s facing on a nightly basis.

The Blackhawks allow more shots overall, so Lehner is getting more perimeter shots as well to help boost that save percentage a bit, but he’s facing a drastic increase in shots from the inner slot and high slot, that include a lot more pre-shot movement because the Blackhawks allow more passes to the slot against than any other team in the league.

Last season Lehner was spectacular on shots outside the inner slot, but slightly below average on shots from within in, so it made sense to assume a rapid uptick in shots from that area would tank his save percentage quickly, but that hasn’t happened at all.

In fact, his inner slot save percentage at 5-vs-5 has risen from .788 last season to .847 this season, while his high slot save percentage has risen from .924 last season to .963 this season, while his save percentage on perimeter shots has remained excellent. Those are gargantuan improvements considering the extremely difficult selection of shots he’s faced.

In fact, last season’s performance saw him save the Islanders about 0.42 goals per 60 minutes above what an average goaltender would be expected to do in that situation. Really great, but nothing compared to this season, where he’s saving 1.29 goals above expectations per 60 minutes of ice time at 5-vs-5. That is completely absurd.

Is a start this hot sustainable? I have a hard time believing it, but Lehner deserves credit for jumping head first into almost the exact opposite situation as he had last year and excelling.

THE QUESTION

This week we had to get topical with the question, because amidst the embattled start to the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kyle Dubas has spoken about… Cody Ceci. So Steve Dangle asks…

“Dubas says Ceci’s underlying numbers are better than expected. What do yours say?”

Heading into this season, I can honestly say that Ceci has been one of the worst regular players in the NHL in terms of on-ice impact. Part of the reason for that was his usage, but getting annihilated in tough minutes is still getting annihilated.

So far this season though, Dubas is not lying — especially if we’re talking about being better than expected.

Ceci remains a drag on overall possession, with the Leafs just over 1.6 per cent worse in shot attempt differential while he’s on the ice than when he’s off it, but he’s above team average in shots on goal, and the team is nearly 20 per cent better in inner slot shot differential while he’s on the ice than off of it.

I’ve mentioned before that this early in the season, I’m more willing to trust the larger sample size of shot attempts over the inner slot shots for predicting future performance, but the impact Ceci has had on high danger scoring chances has been pretty crazy.

That impact isn’t just one way either, Ceci is on the ice for more inner slot shots for per minute than any other Leafs defenceman, and fewer against than any other Leafs defenceman. This is an unprecedented level of performance at the NHL level for Ceci, who has typically been a huge drag offensively and defensively, so it’s extremely dubious to me as to whether or not it will last. But Dubas is probably right that it’s unfair to rip him while his play is strong.

There are a few wrinkles to iron out in this narrative, though. It’s tough to separate Ceci’s impact from the stellar start that the Leafs’ top line is having, and the Matthews line has been particularly outstanding while Rielly and Ceci are on the ice.

More than that though, look at the pass to the slot differentials. While Ceci’s shot differentials are all vastly improved compared to his history, the pass to the slot numbers look similar to most of his career. He’s been excellent at boxing out in the inner slot, but he and Rielly are getting ripped to shreds in the high slot and they’re having trouble blocking passes.

All things being equal, you should be happy with the trade-off of allowing more high slot shots than inner slot shots. But when you’re allowing pre-shot movement like crazy as well, it’s a bit more dangerous.

There are lots of warning signs both in Ceci’s play and his history, but to be honest, right now he isn’t the Leafs’ biggest concern to address.

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• Blake Wheeler is moving to centre to split from Mark Scheifele and create two functional scoring lines for the Jets. That’s something to watch going forward, and looks like it has sparked the team a little.

• Got a request on Twitter to look at Adam Fox after he started heating up offensively, and holy is he ever having a good start. He leads all Rangers defencemen in every shot- or pass-based differential, and among the 157 defencemen who have played more than 200 minutes at 5-vs-5 this season, only Roman Josi has created more scoring chances per minute. He’s one to watch.

• Speaking of great young defencemen, another week passes and Cale Makar remains the player with the best high danger scoring chance differential in the NHL (72 per cent). There’s probably a significant amount of defensive sheltering going on, but he has been brilliant.

• It’s fair to say that Michael Hutchinson wasn’t great for the Leafs, but how tough was it for him to only play on the second half of back-to-backs with a tired team in front of him? Only two goalies have faced more scoring chances per minute: this week’s spotlight performer, Lehner, and former Leaf Curtis McElhinney. Just to twist the knife, Hutchinson stopped just 74.2 per cent of those scoring chances on net, while McElhinney is stopping 91.4 per cent. Oof.

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