OTTAWA – It’s been a few years since Jonathan Cheechoo topped the 50-goal mark. It must seem even longer after games like the Ottawa Senators’ last one.
Cheechoo, acquired during the off-season from the San Jose Sharks, played less than eight minutes – a season low so far – in an overtime loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
More tellingly, when the Senators needed goals in the third period, the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner found himself rooted to the bench by coach Cory Clouston.
“It wasn’t necessarily punishment,” Clouston said Friday, hours after the Senators used a shortened bench to rally from a 3-0 third-period deficit before eventually losing 6-5. “We just went with guys we felt were playing well and were going to give us a little bit of jump and it obviously worked.”
But Clouston made it clear the Senators could use more from a player they were counting on to help offset the offence that departed when two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley was dealt to San Jose in September.
After eight games, Cheechoo is still looking for his first goal as a Senator and it could be a long time coming if he plays as little as the team-low seven minutes 38 seconds of action he saw Thursday. Even fourth-line pest Jarkko Ruutu, at 7:48, played more than the right-winger from Moose Factory, Ont.
“I think I understood,” Cheechoo said Friday. “(Clouston) was going with who was going at the time and there were some other guys. We had some penalties, I didn’t play for a while and it’s just one of those things where he had other guys going so it wasn’t my turn.”
Unless the 29-year-old starts producing, he may find himself waiting longer for his turns to end the drought.
“Jon has to move his feet a little bit more, he’s got to get himself into position to be a shot threat and/or rebound threat and just be a little bit more tenacious around the red zone, around the net,” Clouston said.
Cheechoo topped the NHL in goals in 2005-06, the season following the lockout. While that performance seems to be a one-off for a player who’d never come close to that total in at any level before or since, his arrival in Ottawa gave him a chance at a fresh start after a couple of disappointing seasons in San Jose.
However, despite playing with left-winger Milan Michalek, the other player expected to add some punch after obtained in the Heatley deal, and playmaking centre Jason Spezza, the fresh start has been a slow one.
“There’s always pressure to get a goal, but at the same time, I’ve just got to keep working through it,” Cheechoo said. “It’s not going to come any easier if I put more pressure and start gripping the stick any tighter. I’ve just got to find my way to the net, bang away and try to get a garbage (goal).
“I’ve kind of been a streaky scorer, so if I can get one or two and get some confidence, then I think I can get on a roll,” he added.
Cheechoo had always displayed a regular scoring touch in junior with the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls and with Kentucky and Cleveland of the American Hockey League prior to full-time arrival on the NHL scene.
He netted 28 goals the season before he set a Sharks record with 56. Since then, his output declined from 37 goals in 2006-07, to 23 in 2007-08 to just 12 in 66 games last season.
A double hernia that required surgery contributed to his declining output, but he’d reported to training camp feeling healthier and stronger than he had in some time. Playing with Spezza was supposed to help him the way Joe Thornton’s arrival in San Jose the season he managed 56 did.
A little premature perhaps, but the name of ex-NHLer Bill Muckalt is being brought up around Ottawa. He was the right-winger obtained from the New York Islanders as part of a trade for Alexei Yashin in 2001 who proceeded to play 70 games for the Senators in 2001-02 without recording a single goal.
Only three Senators have taken more shots than Cheechoo’s 18. While Michalek has held up his end of the scoring bargain with five goals through the first eight games, Cheechoo has just two assists. Spezza is also still looking for his first goal, but does have seven helpers.
As Clouston alluded to, the problem may be more in Cheechoo’s skates than his hands.
“I’ve probably just got to move my feet a little bit more,” Cheechoo said, echoing his coach’s comments. “It helps me to stay in the play a little better if I move my feet, and probably drive the net more. I’ve been kind of on the perimeter and most of my shots have been coming from the outside.”
There were a number of bodies absent from practice Friday, including goaltender Pascal Leclaire, whom Clouston said wasn’t feeling well. His last-minute replacement was Gregory “Bud” Fisher, the 22-year-old brother of centre Mike Fisher.
Centre Jesse Winchester has also been sent to Binghamton of the AHL to begin a two-week conditioning assignment after missing the start of the season with a knee injury.
Spezza (undisclosed) and Michalek (upper body) were also absent because of injuries. While Clouston expects Spezza to play against the Boston Bruins at home on Saturday night, he wasn’t sure about Michalek.
That made for some reshuffling of lines at practice and it’s likely that if Spezza and Michalek do suit up Saturday, it won’t be alongside Cheechoo, who will have to find out way to contribute if he’s not scoring. So far, he hasn’t.
“You always want to score – for me anyways, I love scoring. It’s not fun when you’re not scoring,” Cheechoo said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to do something to help the team win and obviously now that’s the way I’m going to get played is if I play well away from the puck as well. So I’m going to concentrate on that and the goals will come.”