Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
Fully two months into the season, it gets more and more difficult to find those diamonds in the rough; players who you are eager to pick up that other owners haven’t noticed yet. At this point you have to look beyond the “top 20” points lists and analyze situations to look for breakout players.
What are some signs that a player might suddenly increase their production? Players “break out” for many different reasons. Some come into the league as baby-faced rookies, take their lumps for a while, then hopefully by their third or fourth year they harness their talent and “put it all together.” Chris Pronger would be one example; a second overall draft pick by Hartford in 1993, he struggled early in his career. After a trade to St. Louis (for Brendan Shanahan) he blossomed and became one of the premier players in the league for the rest of the decade.
A second reason for a breakout would be due to a teammate or organizational injury, giving a young player an otherwise unscheduled opportunity to make an impact. In the fall of 1993, Buffalo goalie Grant Fuhr went down with a knee injury which forced unproven Dominik Hasek to take over, in which all he did was begin an historic career which will lead him to the Hall of Fame (alongside Fuhr).
At any stage of their careers, players who are placed into new roles – either due to being dealt to a more talented team or simply finding chemistry with new linemates - can also find themselves suddenly thrust into the limelight. John LeClair was a serviceable winger for the Montreal Canadiens in the early 90s, even chipping in some crucial overtime goals in Montreal’s last Cup year of 1993, but it wasn’t until he was shipped to Philadelphia and united with Eric Lindros and the “Legion of Doom” line (along with Mikael Renberg) that he broke out – in his case, nearly immediately. He went from a total of 46 goals in three years in Montreal to three straight 50+ goal seasons and elite status.
Of course, you could always garner international attention entering the league as a cleanly-shorn rookie, only to develop a world-class mullet after a decade and attract the attention of Albertan centenarians. We’ll consider that category Ryan Smyth’s alone.
This week I’m looking at a few players in suddenly new situations for them – two players who have benefited from injuries within their organizations and were thus recalled from the American Hockey League, and one who should benefit from a major acquisition by his team…
Jonathan Cheechoo, Right Wing, San Jose Sharks
The obvious big news around the NHL this past week was the trade of Bruins’ captain Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks. I always try to reside in the “let’s see how this plays out” camp for major deals and despite the hue and cry from Bruins fans everywhere, I think this trade could benefit them in myriad ways. That’s for another column, however, as I think this will definitely benefit the Sharks, including a number of their players on a production basis. With San Jose’s top two centers now being Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both currently residing comfortably within the top 20 scorers in the league, they suddenly have a good amount of offense to go around, which makes it tougher for opponents to key on only one line.
I really like the opportunity this affords winger Jonathan Cheechoo, a gifted scorer who did have 28 goals last season but may have been under many owners’ radars since he only totaled 47 points. Since acquiring Joe Thornton as a teammate, Cheechoo has been fortunate enough to be wedded to Joe Thornton on every shift (along with cousin Scott Thornton on the far wing) – this bodes very well for Cheechoo’s future performance, and seeing as the Sharks have won each of the three games since Joe’s arrival the likelihood of them staying together – at least for the immediate future – I would claim is pretty strong.
Cheechoo was a great goal-scorer in juniors – averaging 37 goals per season over his three years with the Belleville Bulls, and leading them to the OHL championship in his second year – but he’s never been a flashy speed-burner. Reminds me a little of the description of Joe Thornton – one of the knocks on Thornton in Boston was that he too-often looked lackadaisical. I think he was unfairly slotted in some circles and he simply is what he is – a very good offensive forward yet not always suited for end-to-end rushes - and I think he and Cheechoo should complement each other well. Cheechoo has a great shot and offensive strength that could cause fits for opposing teams. Cheechoo already has decent numbers this year, with 19 points in 27 games but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him increase his production immediately and dramatically with his new all-star linemate. At worst I would figure Cheechoo would spend the rest of the year either on Thornton’s or Marleau’s wing, so expect to see Jonathan Cheechoo rising up the scoring leaders soon.
Brandon Bochenski, Right Wing, Ottawa Senators
Brandon Bochenski initially caught a lot of people’s attention in the preseason, playing on a line with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley and scoring six goals. However, once the regular season rolled around Bochenski got cold, potting just one goal in the first ten games before being sent back down to Binghamton of the American Hockey League. Fantasy owners everywhere were discarding Bochenski, relegating him to the where-are-they-now file faster than Sean Avery makes ignorant comments.
Bochenski’s been a big goal scorer for some good clubs in his young career – for perennial NCAA powerhouse North Dakota he finished his last two seasons with 62 and 60 points, the last season in 2004 finishing second in the nation in scoring. Last year he scored 34 goals while spending the entire year in Binghamton and although he doubtless was not excited about being sent back down from Ottawa in late-October, he nevertheless regained his scoring touch with 17 points in 14 games while awaiting another chance.
That chance came relatively quickly – at the beginning of December. Martin Havlat - yet another (ho-hum) super-skilled forward for the Sens - dislocated his shoulder and Brandon got the recall from the AHL to replace Havlat temporarily. He’s done a great job thus far: in his three games back Bochenski has six points, including a hattrick last time out against Florida.
In what may have been bad luck for the Senators looks as though it has turned out to be good luck for Bochenski. As of mid-week, Havlat’s diagnosis has taken a turn for the worse as he will miss significant time and in a worst-case-scenario he’ll need surgery and could miss the entire season. If that happens, of course it isn’t a guarantee for Bochenski to remain in Ottawa but it certainly keeps the door open for someone, and Bochenski is there right now, and making (positive) noise.
Bochenski has been lined up with Bryan Smolinski and Vaclav Varada, not exactly names that should excite you offensively. So keep a cautious but steady eye on Bochenski – as I mentioned, he will likely get his chances to remain in Ottawa for a while with Havlat’s injury and if he puts more quality games together he will hopefully get more time on the power play (fairly negligible since his latest call-up). If that happens be sure to snap him up as even a doorstop playing on the Senators’ power play could put up points this year.
Jason Pominville, Winger, Buffalo Sabres
This is a deep recommendation – I’ll cut right to the chase and mention that as of this Wednesday Jason Pominville has only been up with the big club for six games this year, and has a grand total of seven games played in his entire NHL career. Yet I believe Pominville stands a good chance of sticking and scoring points with Buffalo.
For someone with such an impressive scoring resume it has taken a long time to make it to the show. In the past, size (listed at 186 pounds this year) has been the impediment between Pominville and a legitimate chance in the NHL. He averaged 117 points over his last two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior League, and then 32 goals over his first two full seasons in the AHL with Rochester. This season he had 19 goals in only 18 games with the Amerks – clearly this is a player who has been ready for the next step.
Much like Bochenski in Ottawa, injuries played a part in Pominville’s recent recall to the big club. Buffalo recently lost Daniel Briere and JP Dumont to injuries, and for what looks to be a significant amount of time (Dumont for at least three months). Pominville got the recall two weeks ago, and in his first game up against Washington he got a good amount of ice time, logging over 15 minutes and getting his first NHL goal on a beautiful setup from Maxim Afinogenov.
Against Colorado last Sunday night he played with Tim Connolly and Ales Kotalik, currently two of Buffalo’s top three scorers. Pominville played nearly 17 minutes and recorded a goal and assist in a big win over the Avalanche.
Positives to Pominville would be that he would seem to be a good fit for the system the Buffalo Sabres play, which is a high-tempo emphasis on speed. Thus far he has fit in well; notching four shots in each of the past two games and logging more ice time each game. He has a big shot and has been used on the point on Buffalo’s power play, currently ranked fourth in the league. At his best, Pominville is a dynamic offensive talent and could pile up points in the NHL if given the chance.
One of the problems with owning a Buffalo forward isn’t that the team doesn’t score – it’s that they spread out their scoring. They’ve had a quite successful season to date and much of the credit goes to the fact that although they don’t have the one dominating line, they can roll out four lines that can score. Another fact to keep an eye on is that he’s already been sent down to the AHL once this year and according to the current collective bargaining agreement he’ll have to clear waivers if he plays in ten or more regular season games. What that basically means is that if Pominville reaches ten games played, the Sabres would have to risk putting him on waivers to send him back down to Rochester, in which case another team could claim him.
Watch Buffalo and Pominville in particular over the next week or two – Daniel Briere is expected to return within a few weeks and if Pominville stays with the club through his return, I would recommend Pominville in deep leagues as he could surprise you with some points through the winter.
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