The goal machine

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

SAN JOSE -- It shouldn't surprise anybody that Jonathan Cheechoo is among the leaders in NHL goalscoring, but it does.

While there's plenty of familiar names atop the red-light parade - Ilya Kovalchuk, super-rookie Alexander Ovechkin, Dany Heatley and Jaromir Jagr, to name four - the name Cheechoo doesn't seem to fit, even though the San Jose Sharks' unheralded forward lit the lamp 28 times during the 2003-04 season.

Cheechoo's claim to fame used to be he was the first member of the Cree First Nations to sign an NHL contract, but with 25 goals when the Edmonton Oilers came calling at The Tank last night, the soft-spoken kid from Moose Factory, Ontario is a well-kept secret no more.

"I think a lot of it is the rules," said the modest Cheechoo, who faced the Oilers on a career-high nine-game points streak.

"The rules have opened things up more and you get more power play chances here and there."

Cheechoo, 25, drafted 29th overall by the Sharks from Belleville of the OHL in 1998, is on pace to score 40 or more goals.

Not bad for a player whose best output in junior was 45 goals.

"I just work hard every summer trying to improve myself and every aspect of my game," said Cheechoo, who spent the lockout playing with HV71 in Sweden.

"I thought I came into camp in really good shape this year and that has a lot to do with it.

'MORE TIME WITH THE PUCK'

"Sweden prepared me a little bit, too. It's a lot bigger ice surface and you get more time with the puck."

It hasn't hurt, of course, that Cheechoo has been playing alongside Joe Thornton since he arrived from Boston, but there's more to his emergence than the presence of big No. 19.

"He got 28 goals a couple years ago playing on the third line. He's just continuing to develop," San Jose coach Ron Wilson said.

"We haven't seen the best of Jonathan Cheechoo yet. It helps that he gets to play with Joe. People say, 'Anybody can play with him and score.'

"But that's not the way it works in the NHL. You have to have the ability to score. He has that knack."

When the six-foot-one, 190-pound Cheechoo was just 12 back home in Moose Factory - which is located on Hudson's Bay - he wrote as part of a school assignment that he wanted to play for the Sharks in 2002.

Cheechoo did exactly that, making his NHL debut against Detroit on Oct. 10, 2002.

REALLY BLOSSOMED

But it was during the 2003-04 season when he really blossomed, scoring two goals in seven different games and scoring nine goals during a nine-game stretch in March.

It turns out that was just a preview.

"I think I proved I had some offensive talent," said Cheechoo, who scored 32 goals in 2000-01 in his first pro campaign, with Kentucky of the AHL.

"I think I proved to them what I could do.

"I had to win a spot on the team with my defensive play, by improving that and getting to a point where they were comfortable putting me out there in different situations.

"Once you get that, you can build off it.

"You get put in offensive situations after that. Once you get confidence and get on a roll like I did at the end of the season before the lockout, you just carry on with it."

THE OTHER THORNTON: Scott Thornton is used to the attention cousin Joe Thornton has received since arriving in San Jose.

Yesterday, one reporter, spotting the former Oiler with his head down while unlacing his skates after the morning twirl, decided to have some fun with the burly winger.

"Hey, Joe," the reporter said. "Do you have a second?"

Without looking up, Thornton pointed to his right at the locker stall across the entrance to the dressing room and said, "Over there."

It wasn't until he looked up at the familiar scribe that he broke into laughter.

Upon Mighty Joe's arrival from Boston, a dressing room prankster replaced the name bar over Thornton's locker stall with a hand-made version that simply read: "Joe's Cousin."


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