Cam Atkinson knows he has a lot more in him. This season wasn’t his best by any standards.
Coming off of six straight 20-goal seasons, Atkinson played in just 44 games in 2019-20 scoring just 12 goals and 26 points while battling through injuries like most of his teammates.
Atkinson hasn’t played in a game since he suffered an ankle injury in their Feb 8 game against the Colorado Avalanche. At the point, the time frame for recovery was expected to be 2-3 weeks.
But then everything halted thanks to the pandemic.
When the puck drops on their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday night, it will be almost six months since Atkinson played in a meaningful game. He is expected to play in Thursday’s exhibition.
The good news for Atkinson is that he’s had plenty of time to recover from the ankle injury. On Monday, he told the media that he’s in a good place with his skating. There will be no limitations.
And that’s a good thing for the Blue Jackets. If they hope to advance past the Maple Leafs in their best-of-five, Atkinson must rise to the occasion.
Tortorella Honest About Atkinson
Head coach John Tortorella didn’t hold back any words when he was asked about Atkinson. According to the coach, Atkinson has come a long way from when they first got together.
“I’ve always said the first time I started coaching this team, Cam was a scratch the game before,” Tortorella said. “I have relied on him from day one in all situations. He’s a very important part of our team if we want to succeed in any game.”
This is to be expected for someone who has a 41-goal season under their belt. On a team in the Blue Jackets who at times have had immense trouble scoring, Atkinson can get hot at any time. Then it seems everything he touches goes in.
But Tortorella has seen how inconsistent Atkinson has been from the start of the season. It comes down to one very important thing. Energy.
“I’m very honest about it,” Tortorella said. “I think if he isn’t playing with the energy he needs to play with, he is an average/below average player. I think his energy level on the way he can dart and get to things is very important. That has been inconsistent.”
But if there is some good news to report from a Blue Jackets’ standpoint, it’s that Tortorella thinks Atkinson is on the right track.
“I watched him practice again today,” Tortorella said of Atkinson. “The past 2-3 practices, you can see that he’s getting ramped up here.”
Atkinson on Monday was nominated for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy which is presented “to the player best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” His leadership has grown by leaps and bounds. His work on the recent virtual 5K that helped raise over $40,000 for a new Covid-19 machine made him the perfect Blue Jackets’ candidate for this award. It’s a testament to his growth as a player and person.
But for him to take the next step, Atkinson needs to show he can handle more for his team especially when the stakes are so high.
“We’ve had very frank conversations,” Tortorella said. “He (Atkinson) needs to assume more responsibility as far as what he’s gonna do on the ice. Leadership isn’t always done with your mouth. It’s done with your legs most of the time as far as how you play. I think that’s a very important thing for him as we enter this series.”
For Atkinson, this postseason serves as a fresh opportunity to take that important next step in his career. If he can heed what Tortorella is saying, it could be the thing that helps the Blue Jackets avoid a short stay in the Toronto bubble. He’s that important.
- Tortorella said the battle for the sixth defenseman is between Dean Kukan and Markus Nutivaara. Kukan has skated in that spot during the first two practices in Toronto. The remaining practices and the exhibition game could determine who starts Sunday night.
- Need a reminder how good this Blue Jackets defense is? Ryan Murray is starting at the fifth D. When asked about Murray, Tortorella had nothing but praise for him. “Murr is just a really good player. His vision, the transition he brings to us, I think he’s one of our better players at understanding position. It’s been very frustrating for him and for the organization in as far as how many games he has missed because he’s that good.”
- One of Zach Werenski’s best friends is now the enemy in their upcoming series. He and Auston Matthews go way back to their days in the U.S. Program. But Werenski says they haven’t talked in a couple weeks since camp started. “I don’t think we’ll be grabbing any meals or anything like that. I’m sure if I see him in the lobby or elevator or something we’ll catch up. When you’re in the middle of a series against Toronto, you don’t want to get too friendly with them.”
- Boone Jenner admitted that he and his teammates will likely watch the games when given the opportunity. “I like watching games. There’s a couple games today we’re gonna tune in for.” Welcome to new reality in the bubble.
- Finally, Tortorella reiterated that despite the same lines being run at practice for two straight days, he hasn’t determined what they will look like for Game 1 on Sunday. They’ll get one game and two practices to make their final decisions. Until that game starts, don’t assume we know the lines.