How huge was the Cheechoo fall off? From 50-goal scorer to 3rd liner to contract dump to waiver wire. Not only was he put on waivers—HE CLEARED WAIVERS! Stop and think about that. He went from leading the entire NHL in goals to being a player that all 30 teams passed on in three and a half seasons.
He obviously worked extremely hard to get where he’s at. Whenever you see a First Nation player in the NHL, they didn’t take the path most traveled. What’s more, when you see a guy who made the show from Moose Factory, then you know that his story is a little bit different. I didn’t say Moose Jaw, I said Moose Factory. Yes, THAT small.
Take a look back Cheechoo’s early career. Going into his second NHL season, Cheechoo had dedicated himself to being in the best shape of his career. Incoming coach Ron Wilson had him on an ambitious offseason training program and he continued to work on his skating. During the season he played with hard-working grinders Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton—and reaped the benefits. The veterans helped Cheechoo take his game to the next level and he ended the season with an impressive 28 goals. It looked like he was fulfilling the 1st round expectations that Dean Lombardi had for him.
Next season was the breakout season. Take a guy with some skill who has learned how to work hard from some of the best, and then pair him with one of the best set-up men of our generation in Joe Thornton. On paper, that has the signs of a match made in heaven—and after his 56-goal season, Cheechoo had to feel like he was living the charmed life. He was in the 3rd year, already had 93 career goals, and had his entire NHL career ahead of him. There’s no way that he could have known that it was only going to go downhill from there.
He bounced back the next season with 37 goals in 2006-07. While that sounds like a good season, it was almost 20 goals off the pace that he had set only a season before. I don’t care who you are or what business you’re in—when you have your production drop by 33%, people are going to be disappointed. But unfortunately for everyone involved, injury problems started to pop up in 2006-07 that would be the precursor to his slide.
The guy hasn’t been able to score regularly over the past two years due to major abdominal surgery (summer 2008) and a whole grab bag of injuries, including the dreaded groin injury.” –Mike Chen on Kukla’s Korner
If people were disappointed with his follow-up to the 56-goal season, how do you think they felt when he dropped all the way down to 37 points for the entire 2007-08 season? He had been moved off of the line with Joe Thornton, been slowed by a variety of injuries and, quite frankly, wasn’t the same well-conditioned athlete that he was when he made the jump into the NHL’s elite.
When a player has a bad year, we always talk about how that season was the anomaly. Maybe it’s the optimist in sports fans, but we usually assume that a player that has a bad year will bounce back to have a better year. But when you look at Cheechoo’s careers stats, his 56-goal season is the exception in his career—not the rule. Throughout juniors, the AHL, and even his other NHL seasons, he never looked like the guy that was going to annually compete for the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Since his disappointing 37-goal campaign in 2006-07, Cheechoo has managed 40 goals and 40 assists in 196 games. That’s 3 seasons with a total of 40 goals. All of a sudden, the 37 goals seem pretty decent, don’t they?
The heartbreaking part for NHL fans is the type of player Jonathan Cheechoo was in San Jose. Aside from scoring goals (which brought the spotlight), he was consummate professional. He was the kind of guy who would go to the front of the net and take a beating. He was the kind of guy who would go to the corners to muck and grind for the puck. He would stick up for his teammates. He was a great guy in the locker room. He would take direction from the coaching staff. And people wonder why he was a fan favorite!
If you forget about the name and any expectations you might have, you have a description of the type of player that every single team in the league would love to have. But when you put a struggling name with diminishing stats and an inflated salary, objectivity tends to be thrown out the door. His 56-goal year might have just been a case of catching lightning in a bottle for one amazing season. Teams should take it for what it’s worth, don’t expect it again and move on.
I hope that he pulls it together and gets another shot in the NHL. He’s too young, too talented, and too good of a teammate to not be able to help someone along the way. I’m not 100% sure where the best place would be to play him. He might not be a top-line winger anymore, but he could be valuable to a team if they accept him for what he is—a bottom 6 guy that has a good touch around the net. Wherever he ends up, it should be somewhere better than Binghamton.