Free Agent Bargain Bin: Jonathan Cheechoo

The primary reason Billy Beane employs statistical analysis in player evaluation is due to the Oakland A’s inability to compete financially for the better baseball players. As such, Beane and the A’s had to find a way to find players other teams undervalued.

By looking at players through the prism of statistical analysis, the A’s were able to compete on a shoestring budget.

In today’s NHL with its salary cap, teams have to be conscious of every dollar they spend. Finding bargains in free agency and developing cheap young talent is imperative to building depth on a team’s roster. With the salary cap ceiling at $59 million or so, a team is only able to pay a few players “superstar” money. The rest of the roster consists of bargain-priced players (i.e. players out producing his compensation); at least if you have a winning roster.

Sometimes teams invest in free agents that may not have been given much of an opportunity in previous stops. Matt Moulson of the New York Islanders is an example of a player who hadn’t received an opportunity and then excelled after moving to another team.

Then there are instances where a team takes a chance on a player that has achieved some success but for whatever reason his play declined. Sometimes those players recapture their past glory, at least to a degree. And of course sometimes the players prove their NHL careers are beyond hope.

One player that falls into the latter category, though we won’t know if he will recapture his glory or flame out until he finally signs somewhere, is Jonathan Cheechoo. Cheechoo won the Rocket Richard Trophy in the 2005 – 2006 season when he finished with 56 goals. Since then he has seen his goal scoring totals regress.

  • 2005-06 – 56 goals, 82 games played
  • 2006-07 – 37 goals, 76 games played
  • 2007-08 – 23 goals, 69 games played
  • 2008-09 – 12 goals, 66 games played
  • 2009-10 – 5 goals, 61 games played

Generally when you see numbers decline that intensely the first thought is the player is showing his age. Cheechoo, however, is still only 29; hardly an age when many players are considered “over-the-hill.”

The next thing we should do is look at Cheechoo’s situation. In 2005-06, Cheechoo was a San Jose Shark and benefitted from skating with one of the best playmakers in the game, Joe Thornton. Cheechoo was a member of the Sharks through the 2008-09 season though. He may not have skated with Thornton much in subsequent seasons but was still playing on a talented team with skilled players.

In 2009-10, Cheechoo was a member of the Ottawa Senators following his inclusion in the Dany Heatley deal. Cheechoo had his worst season as an NHL’er recording just 5 goals and 14 points. The Senators bought out the final year of his contract making him a UFA.

It’s too easy to just write off Jonathan Cheechoo’s career as simply a byproduct of playing with a talented player (Thornton) and/or playing on a good team (San Jose). You have to figure anyone with enough talent to score 56 goals in a single NHL campaign just four years ago hasn’t lost all of his ability at the age of 29. Maybe there is a chance Cheechoo regains some of his former scoring ability. The team lucky enough or smart enough to take a chance on him could reap some serious rewards.

To figure out what may have changed since his glory days, I took an in-depth look at some of the numbers you don’t usually see in a player’s stat line. Here’s what I found.

The first thing I noticed was that a relatively high percentage of Cheechoo’s goals were tallied on the PP.

  • 2005-06 – 56 goals (24 PPG) 42.9%
  • 2006-07 – 37 goals (15 PPG) 40.5%
  • 2007-08 – 23 goals (10 PPG) 43.5%
  • 2008-09 – 12 goals (5 PPG) 41.7%

For comparative purposes I looked at the career numbers of a few of the NHL’s better goal scorers to see what percentages of their goals came on the PP.

  • Dany Heatley – 39.1%
  • Marian Gaborik – 30%
  • Ilya Kovalchuk – 34.6%
  • Thomas Vanek – 43.6%
  • Rick Nash – 31.3%

Cheechoo has recorded 36.5% of his goals on the power play during his 7 year career. That mark fits in reasonably with the players listed above. So we can then reasonably conclude Cheechoo wasn’t simply  a power play specialist who got an inordinate number of his markers with the man-advantage.

Let’s go back to Cheechoo’s numbers for a second. Understanding that the percentage of PP goals scored relative to his total goals scored didn’t fluctuate wildly during the four year term highlighted above is telling.

My next step was to look up Cheechoo’s average power play time per game (PP ATOI/Gm) for each of the above-referenced seasons and how much his time decreased from his highest season average.

  • 2005-06 – 5:08 PP ATOI/GM
  • 2006-07 – 4:22 PP ATOI/GM (-15%)
  • 2007-08 – 3:24 PP ATOI/GM (-33.8%)
  • 2008-09 – 2:06 PP ATOI/GM (-59.1%)

His PP ATOI/GM decreased by nearly 60% from 2005-2006 to 2008-2009. How much did his goals scored decrease in each of those years?

  • 2005-06 – 56
  • 2006-07 – 37 (-33.9%)
  • 2007-08 – 23 (-58.9%)
  • 2008-09 – 12 (-78.6%)

Clearly, as Cheechoo’s power play time decreased so did his power play goal scoring totals and obviously too, his overall goal scoring totals. Of course reduced PP time probably isn’t the only reason his production slipped but it might be an important factor. And it might have also been the prelude to some other possible explanation.

It is possible that as his struggles to produce goals lingered, Cheechoo’s confidence waned. If he lost confidence that could hinder his production further. Now we’re getting into vicious-circle territory. We won’t know what Cheechoo would have done had he not seen such a dramatic decrease in power play minutes but we can sure try to figure it out.

This is where rates come into play. What makes the rates we’re going to use in our recreation so useful is the fact that they are pretty constant. For example; his goals scored per minute of power play time ranged from .039 in 2008-09 to .057 in his huge 2005-06 season.

Let’s discount that season for the balance of our exercise; just like we’ll eliminate his horrible 2009-10 season in Ottawa. It is good idea when figuring averages to eliminate the two extremes (highest and lowest). His next best rate of power play goals scored per power play minute is .045. The difference between those numbers (.039 and .045) is equivalent to just 1.6 goals in 82 contests.

Looking at PPG and PP ATOI/GM we can figure out Cheechoo scored an average of .0425 goals/minute of PP ice time. His average number of PP minutes per game during those three seasons was 3.35 minutes per game. Prorate that over a full 82 game schedule and Cheechoo would have scored 11.66 goals on the power play.

We also know how many of Cheechoo’s goals were power play markers. We can use that to calculate the rate of PPG to total goals scored since those rates remained relatively consistent during that period. Doing that yields a rate of .417 (rounded up).

By simply dividing the number of power play goals by this number we will figure out how many total goals Cheechoo could have been expected to score in an 82 game schedule. According to my figures, Cheechoo would have scored 28 goals (11.66 PPG) per season had he received his average PP time and played an 82 game schedule.

Those numbers are modest when compared to his career year of 2005-06. But if Cheechoo had been consistently producing those numbers it’s unlikely he would have been bought out of his deal and he would not be an UFA right now.

If I were a GM and had performed this analysis, I would have interest in signing Cheechoo for a bargain rate. Of course I haven’t seen much of him in the last couple of seasons so perhaps there is more to the story. That’s where scouting reports would come in.

If the scouting reports don’t show any conclusive reason why his production has slipped and utilizing my analysis, it is conceivable Cheechoo has a bounce back if given the right scenario. He needs plenty of PP ice time and a playmaking Center to skate with. If a team has those things and is looking for a cheap option at wing, Cheechoo may offer some bang for the buck.

How about a team like Pittsburgh? The Penguins have been looking for scoring wingers to play with Crosby and Malkin for a couple of years now. They don’t have tons of cap space to go out and get a big name. Maybe playing in Pittsburgh with Crosby can get Cheechoo scoring 30 goals again. For a team like Pittsburgh, Cheechoo might be a perfect low risk/high reward acquisition.

Looking deeper into a player’s numbers can sometimes yield some interesting information. This analysis suggests Cheechoo may have some good years in front of him after all. Many fans, if asked, would probably tell you Cheechoo is finished as a useful NHL player.

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2 Responses to “Free Agent Bargain Bin: Jonathan Cheechoo”

  1. ack
    July 8, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Interesting piece, but Cheechoo never recovered his ability to move after the double hernia surgery.  He stopped beating guys down the wing and just didn’t look good out there.  That first year with Thornton was probably a bunch of factors coming together (Thornton new to the West, Cheechoo young and unproven, Cheechoo able to move into spots to give him space, etc.).  Loosing speed killed his career.  Sure, someone might sign him, and even try him in the top 2 lines, but I don’t think it will work out unless he can somehow get his ability to skate back.