Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cheechoo gets another shot in NHL with Blues

Former 50-goal scorer trying to ignite flame after tumultuous couple seasons

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It wasn't long ago that Jonathan Cheechoo was considered one of the NHL's up-and-coming snipers. It seemed like any time the puck would find his stick, it would find its way into the back of the net.

A 56-goal season in 2005-06 with the San Jose Sharks garnered such praise as well.

The Moose Factory, Ontario native was living a dream -- and having a whale of a time doing it.

It was a 56-goal season -- which still stands as a Sharks team record -- that came on the heels of a 28-goal rookie campaign. The 31-year-old Cheechoo was made to shoot the puck, and the Sharks gave him every opportunity to do so.

(Getty Images)
Jonathan Cheechoo (left), playing for the Ottawa Senators in 2010,
shoots the puck against Montreal's Jaroslav Halak. Halak is the Blues'
No. 1 goalie today and would like to add Cheechoo as a teammate.

"He might have scored 30 goals out there today," boasted Blues captain David Backes after practice Saturday. "Everything he shot went in today. Hopefully it's an omen for what he's got in the bank."

Cheechoo, who was drafted by the Sharks in the second round (29th overall) in 1998, still put up productive numbers in each season following but after the 56-goal, 93-point season of 05-06, his goal production dipped from 56 to 37, then 23 and finally 12 before the Sharks dealt him to Ottawa as part of a blockbuster trade that also saw Milan Michalek and a second round pick go to the Senators for Dany Heatley and a fifth rounder.

Cheechoo's stay in Ottawa could only be classified as a disaster. He scored five goals and had 14 points in 61 games and would soon find himself out of a job. The life and dream of the NHL was hanging by a thread. 

"I'm not sure," Cheechoo said when asked what went wrong. "Just maybe my body took a little bit of a beating, but at the same time, I'm just not sure. I just lost a little bit of the confidence shooting the puck."

Those are wrong words for a goal-scorer, especially one whose career took him to the deep portions of the AHL, where Cheechoo spent last year after a tryout with the Dallas Stars hit a dead end. Cheechoo scored 18 goals and added another 29 assists for the Worcester Sharks.

"The travel's been a little different, a little bit more strenuous on your body," said Cheechoo, who signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Blues over the summer. "But at the same time, I think I went down there, had the right attitude and showed people I could still score. More importantly, I showed myself I could still score. I had a lot of fun playing the game. I'm just looking for an opportunity."

Cheechoo gets that opportunity with the Blues, who gave him a $600k/$105k contract to see if he can recapture that early-career magic.

"It's something I feel really good about coming into this year, probably the best shape I've been in in a long time," Cheechoo said. "I'm looking forward to coming in here and giving it a good shot.

"They were willing to obviously give me a shot to make the team. They've got a good, young team, too, so it would be interesting to be a part of something like that."

Blues coach Davis Payne said the Blues won't overlook anything if Cheechoo performs like in the past.

"You won't ignore it. It's our job not to ignore it," Payne said. "He's going to have that opportunity. He's got to make a statement and say, 'Hey, I'm back here and I mean business.'

"We need to see him have an impact on the game with his skills. His goal-scoring, it's been well-documented. He's going to have the opportunity to play with the kind of guys that would create those situations. We want to see how effective and how much of an impact he can have using those. There's an all-around game that of course we want to see, but ultimately, the skills that kind of differentiate each player, this is what we want to see step up."

Cheechoo must overcome those mental demons that can haunt a scorer. Nobody can explain the sudden drop in goal-scoring production, but Cheechoo feels the mental aspect if his game is back ... and he's ready to show it.

"I think I'm pretty good mentally right now," Cheechoo said. "It's just having the confidence that I can score on anybody at the right time. For me, that's a big thing. Physically, I feel like I've come in here ready. I guess I'll just finally give it my best shot here.

"It's just a matter of believing in your talents. I maybe let that get away from me in past years, but I've scored at this level and I've scored at every level that I've played at. I really believe I can still score at this level. It's something that I want to come in here and show them."
(Getty Images)
Jonathan Cheechoo (right) hopes to revive his career with the

A number of players that go through these types of situations would more than likely pack it in and call it a career. Not Cheechoo.

"I love playing hockey. I grew up playing it," he said. "It's something I'll never take for granted. We get to play a game and it's something I really enjoy doing. I've been around it my whole life. I just want to continue playing as long as I can contribute."

Cheechoo battled a back injury, something that bothered him for a stretch last year but is back to feeling good again.

With David Perron (concussion symptoms) still shelved, a door is open for somebody to grab that extra forward slot. Cheechoo sees that there is a light.

"Conditioning-wise, I feel like I'm in the best shape I've been in in a long, long time," Cheechoo said. "A lot of that leads to confidence on the ice, too.

"I've been looking forward to it, I've been off ... I haven't played in the game for something like six months. I'm excited to get practices going and getting into games."

Added Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, "With the understanding that Perron's not going to be available right off the start, we know what talent (Cheechoo) brings. ... I'm looking at that competition to see who's going to come in there ... whether they're sleepers or not, the barn door is open right now. Here it is, go get it."

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