When Joe Thornton was traded to the San Jose Sharks in December of 2005, he had an effect on a great many things. On a macro level, the team was considered a legitimate contender for the first time in their history. Although they had made it as far as the Western Conference finals the season prior, the addition of Thornton helped to bring the spotlight to a non-traditional hockey market.
The effect Thornton had on the micro level was possibly more significant, as he catapulted a young forward to stardom. Twenty-five year old Jonathan Cheechoo, a second-round pick out of the small town of Moose Factory, Ontario , went on to score an NHL leading 56 goals that year.
Cheechoo quickly became a fan favorite, a direct result of his newly found offensive skill. His unique name didn't hurt either, and soon HP Pavilion was filled with train whistles and signs. He was a star.
That's possibly why it was so surprising to witness his downfall, a shocking turn of events for a player who had captured the hearts of the fan base. Just four seasons removed from his 56 goal campaign, Cheechoo was traded away from the team that made him a star. He is now a minor league player without a professional contract, struggling to find his way back to the NHL and recapture some of his former glory.
Cheechoo's decline is fresh in the minds of fans across the NHL, especially because he was a piece in the highly publicized trade which brought Dany Heatley to San Jose. Cheechoo's name is one that invokes phrases like "one-hit wonder" and "flash in the pan." People tend to forget that he had four consecutive seasons of 23 or more goals, but still, comparing a player to Jonathan Cheechoo is a black mark that implies that their best seasons are behind them.
Because of this fact, Devin Setoguchi can't be happy. As the winger continues to struggle to find the consistent goal scoring touch that made him a break-out star in his sophomore season of 2008-2009, comparisons to the former Shark Cheechoo continue to surface. With just nine goals in forty games this year, people are all too eager to create the link between the two players.
However, Setoguchi and Cheechoo couldn't be more different.
It's easy to draw the line connecting them; both players excelled and subsequently regressed with the Sharks. Both players had break out sophomore seasons (Cheechoo had 28 goals, while Setoguchi had 31). Both benefitted from some crisp Joe Thornton passes. Both quickly became fan favorites.
But despite these similarities, Setoguchi and the 2007-2009 version of Cheechoo are wildly different.
First, Setoguchi is just twenty-four years old and playing in just his fourth professional season. In a league where the average forward is 27 years old, Setoguchi is among the league's younger talent. The ceiling for the eighth-overall pick in the 2005 entry draft remains high.
Second, Cheechoo's decline was a direct result of his diminishing skating ability. He was never the fleetest skater, scoring the majority of his goals in the role of spot-up shooter even before he began to sustain injuries which would hamper his already below-average skating ability. In 2006, he suffered from a nagging knee injury. In 2007 it was problems with his groin which would affect him even further.
Setoguchi's main asset, on the other hand, is his skating. He's capable of blistering acceleration and maintaining that speed, and his hands are usually able to keep up with his feet. He did suffer a leg injury early last season, which slowed him during the year, but it appears as if that is far behind him. He's been quick to pucks all season.
The decline in Setoguchi's game can be partially attributed to that injury, however, but for different reasons. Early that season, Setoguchi was on a line with Joe Thornton and the newly acquired Dany Heatley. In those eleven games before suffering the leg injury, Setoguchi had seven goals.
Upon his return, Setoguchi was greeted with third and fourth line minutes for the better part of two months. Still nursing whatever injury had kept him out for nine games, Setoguchi didn't look at the top of his game and struggled to find consistency in his game. That struggle has continued into the new season.
However, he's spent most of this season on the lower lines as well. He's always been a player who has had issues with confidence; he commented on exactly that when he was a rookie in Ron Wilson's system. Now, with current coach Todd McLellan calling him out on multiple occasions, his confidence can't be much better.
There is a bright spot, though, and it's found in Setoguchi's shooting percentage. Although he's shooting just 9.5% now, he exceeded 12% shooting in each of his last two seasons. That number should normalize by season's end, sending Setoguchi to more expected scoring levels.
Setoguchi still has a lot to prove. But at 24, he has time to move past the slight hiccup in his career. It might be a case where he just needs some new surroundings, and with his name popping up everywhere in trade talks that could be a possibility sooner rather than later. Still, the talent is there and it's undeniable.
A regression in goals per game from .38 in 2008-2009 to .28 in 2009-2010 to .23 so far this year can raise eyebrows. However, comparing the young Setoguchi to a player who possibly won't see another minute in the NHL seems a bit premature. A trade might be necessary to bring in the impact player the Sharks are looking for, but we assume that Setoguchi will make any trade that sends him elsewhere look at least a tad bit foolish when he regains his scoring touch in the future.