Best Edmonton Oilers d-man this year? Unheralded, often maligned but back on track

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The best Oilers player this year? Leon Draisaitl, hands down.

The most improved? Warren Foegele comes to mind.

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The best d-man? This will be a shocker for some but my vote after eight games goes to unheralded and oft-maligned Cody Ceci.

After almost an entire season when he was subpar, accused of being overpaid and often mentioned as a player who could do with some trading out of town, Ceci is back playing his quiet, steady, and effective “A” game.

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He rarely does anything that makes the fans cheer. He’s slower than NHL average on his skates. He rarely makes a nifty move or spectacular pass.

But he moves the puck OK. He plays a decent enough physical game. And he’s always, always, always on the right side of his man, in position, making the smart and safe play.

Closing in on age 30, now into his 11th NHL season, and having played 714 regular season and 64 NHL playoff games, Ceci is again bringing his “A” game. He’s again the epitome of the defensive d-man, uncelebrated but effective, at his best when you don’t notice him at all.

In writing game grades this year, I keep a running list of the actions, good and bad, of each Oilers player during each game. There’s many a game that’s come to an end and I’ll find a many sentences written on Darnell Nurse or Evan Bouchard, but barely a word about Ceci.

And that’s when I know he’s played his best, that he’s kept a clean sheet at even strength, not one major mistake on a Grade A shot against.

Ceci has played at such a high level that he’s been bumped up off the bottom pairing to play again with Darnell Nurse on the first pair. Is it any coincidence that Nurse’s game has settled down after a rough and erratic start?

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Oilers d-men

We are again seeing the useful Ceci we saw much of the 2021-22 season, his first with the Oilers, but the player we missed last year. Ceci was hurt most of the year. He wasn’t so good. He wasn’t as physical. He got beat more. But we also heard he had an injured groin much of the year. That’s a hard injury to play with.

This year it’s Mattias Ekholm who is down a bit. He’s been injured and how he’s the one struggling. Not so able to move as he’d like, Ekholm is getting beat on the rush now and then, turnstiled even.

It’s notable what injury does to NHL players. It turns good ones into below average ones. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you move out that struggling and injured player. I recommended the Oilers hold on to Ceci after last season, that he was a solid candidate to rebound, that he wasn’t paid so much, $3.2 million per, around the NHL average, and it would be hard to find a d-man better than Ceci for that amount of money.

Now that Ceci is playing better, he’s also got more value on the trade market. I’m not saying the Oilers should trade him, but in three or four months if the team thinks Vincent Desharnais and Philip Broberg are ready to thrive in the playoffs, Ceci could help bring in an awfully good veteran forward in return.

For now he’s doing what he does best, disappear into the game and make his whole team better.

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