Flyers’ Atkinson a Crucial Piece for Future of Franchise

Cam Atkinson hasn’t dominated the headlines for the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2021-22 season. The team faces an inevitable outcome of missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1992-93 and 1993-94, and they have slipped to the bottom spot in the Metropolitan Division. Their struggles and the impending trade of long-time captain Claude Giroux have dominated the conversation during a tumultuous season.

The chaos of the big picture has allowed Atkinson to slide under the radar during an excellent first season in Philadelphia. The 32-year-old right-winger currently leads the Flyers in goals and points. He is one of only four skaters to dress in all 56 games, and he is the only one of general manager Chuck Fletcher’s offseason acquisitions who has inarguably filled the role the organization expected him to play. At a time of great uncertainty amidst demand for change in Philadelphia, the Flyers have at least one light of positivity in the locker room, on the ice, and in their future as an organization.

Fletcher Acquires Atkinson in Offseason Roster Overhaul

Fletcher made his fourth major trade in the span of one week when he sent Jakub Voracek to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Atkinson on the second day of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. The series of moves signaled a message of accountability within the organization for the disappointment of the 2020-21 season.

Cam Atkinson, Philadelphia Flyers
Cam Atkinson, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 5-foot-8 sparkplug was among a group of additions with reputations as strong teammates and leaders. Fletcher also brought up in projected top defenseman Ryan Ellis and bruising blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen to replace Shayne Gostisbehere and Philippe Myers. He added veterans Keith Yandle, Nate Thompson, Derick Brassard, and Martin Jones later in the summer. The shake-up was supposed to establish a new dynamic in the dressing room and help the Flyers rejoin the conversation as Stanley Cup contenders. 

The stylistic change in the player-for-player swap seemed like a fit. Voracek consistently racked up assists during his 10 seasons in Philadelphia, especially on the power play, but his place on the team had grown stale. The move for a goal-scorer with a shooter’s mentality matched the change in approach the team was looking for.

Related: Flyers Must Utilize Ristolainen’s Substantial Trade Value

The move also added an experienced penalty killer to a unit that finished 30th in the NHL in 2020-21. The two players had comparable remaining salaries owed, but Atkinson’s $5.875 million cap hit was spread out an extra year through the 2024-25 season. Lessening the blow of Voracek’s $8.25 million cap hit was a major incentive for the Flyers at the time. Atkinson’s pre-existing relationships with Kevin Hayes and a group of Flyers with connections to the New England area made the match look ideal.

Atkinson Shines While Flyers Sink

Fletcher’s vision has failed worse than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. A nagging injury has limited Ellis to four games in 2021-22. Ristolainen has experienced his ups and downs. He remains a heavily debated player in NHL circles. Brassard and Jones have provided suitable contributions in limited action. Yandle and Thompson haven’t proven to be worthwhile additions.

Meanwhile, Atkinson has quietly been a top contributor. He is currently on pace for 30 goals and 33 assists over an 82-game span, which would make for his highest goal and point totals since a career-best season in 2018-19. His production has been one of the few reliable elements of a team ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring. He and Giroux have been the only proven veterans on the roster producing offensively after injuries and inconsistency have stunted Hayes, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, and James van Riemsdyk. He has also logged more total ice time than any other Flyers forward

Cam Atkinson Philadelphia Flyers
Cam Atkinson, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Atkinson’s play-driving statistics in 2021-22 are underwhelming. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 47.83 and expected goals share of 46.45% fall below expectations for a top-six forward. However, Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic astutely pointed to Atkinson’s finishing ability as a prime example of how “advanced stats aren’t the end-all, be-all of analysis” (The Athletic, Flyers’ improvements finally pay off as losing streak ends, but trade deadline looms: O’Connor’s Observations, 3/1/22). He has capitalized on opportunities in a way that many of his teammates haven’t throughout the season. 

The majority of Philadelphia’s top scorers have gotten more power-play minutes than Atkinson. He ranks second on the team among lineup regulars in points per 60 at five-on-five with 2.44, narrowly behind Joel Farabee. The former Boston College Eagle has been the most consistent forward on a penalty-killing unit that has had to survive a revolving door of personnel due to injuries. His three shorthanded goals have brought his total to 15 since the start of the 2016-17 season, which is more than any other NHL player.

Atkinson’s Positive Energy

Atkinson brought a great off-ice reputation with him from Columbus. According to one astonishing story, the former Blue Jackets winger withdrew money from an ATM outside Nationwide Arena and bought tickets for fans who had been waiting in line for playoff seats. He has kept true to his character in Philadelphia by emphasizing positivity in a lost season that has turned ugly for the Flyers at several points.

When the Blue Jackets visited the Wells Fargo Center on Jan. 20, Atkinson spoke about the emotions running through his brain and made sure to express the “utmost respect” for his former organization. Even considering the nightmare season the Flyers have had, he candidly expressed appreciation for wearing the orange and black.

 “I love it here. For me, everything happens for a reason and I think I was born to wear the Flyers jersey.”

-Cam Atkinson

After a loss to the Boston Bruins in October, he mentioned “staying positive on the bench” as a key to success going forward. He has remarkably stayed true to his words through unthinkable trials and tribulations since the early-season clunker. His playful rivalry with the 6-foot-4 Ristolainen has provided a few laughs. He regularly speaks about the accountability the Flyers need as a group and attempts to boost the confidence of his teammates with glowing endorsements, as he did for Giroux amidst swirling trade rumors on Feb. 25.

“He’s (Giroux is) the heart and soul of this team, the heart and soul of the organization. It’s been an honor to get to know him.”

-Cam Atkinson

Fletcher’s plan to acquire leaders to unify and strengthen the chemistry of the Flyers has gone off the rails for a variety of different reasons, but the presence of Atkinson certainly isn’t one of them. The organization is just beginning the hunt for “top-end talent” that can move the Flyers into the future and help them back into contention. Atkinson doesn’t fit the bill as a player who can carry a team to victory with dominant offensive play. However, Philadelphia can say in a lost season that they have one top-six winger cemented in their foreseeable future. 

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