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Admiring Cam Atkinson at the Quarter Pole

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In his eighth NHL season, Cam Atkinson is thriving like never before.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Atkinson is on some kind of bender. No, not the one you’re thinking of. Not the type that Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals thoroughly enjoyed last summer — perhaps in due time? But ever since Jarmo Kekalainen gave Atkinson the seven-year vote of confidence, and really, the mega bucks ($41.25 million through 2024-25) he commanded as a potential UFA among other big-time headliners that included John Tavares last summer, No. 13 has delivered in a big way, just as Kekalainen and Blue Jackets fans would have hoped.

I don’t know how you feel about big-time contracts.

I’m gun-shy, more when it comes to those hundreds-of-millions of dollar pacts being pushed back and forth in sports such as MLB. But in the salary cap world of today’s NHL, and with a Blue Jackets team desperately trying to take that next step deep within the playoffs, how could you not want to see the big bucks spent by the Blue Jackets to keep their stars in Central Ohio?

Credit Kekalainen for that. And within the constructs of the salary cap — a salary floor and ceiling — for being able to smartly manage the roster, aligned within the salary cap constraints. However, you could also make the argument that the front office has given into players’ demands a bit hastily after career seasons — Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno.

Dubinsky, 32-years-old, now relegated to bottom-six minutes, battled injuries and inconsistencies on the ice after signing for six years, $35.1 million in the summer of 2014. He still carries a $5.85 million cap hit per season through 2020-21. Foligno, 31, hasn’t been a 30-goal scorer since his breakout 2014-15 season and six-year $33 million contract extension. Since that 73 point season, he had 51 points (26 goals, 25 assists) in 2016-17, but otherwise hasn’t cracked 40 points in a season since the extension. Wennberg, still just 24-years-old, hasn’t found that next step yet, considering what the Jackets must have thought when they extended him for six more seasons following a 59 point (13 goals, 46 assists) breakout season in 2016-17.

Maybe the answer with a large contract such as these lies in the weeds of the not-so-distant 2021 NHL Expansion draft. Such as when the Golden Knights took David Clarkson’s salary off the Jackets’ books. By then both Dubinsky and Foligno would have finished their current deals. Wennberg’s expires after the 2022-23 season.

Longest Tenured

Along with David Savard, Atkinson represents the longest tenured Blue Jackets, making his debut in 2011-12. We had a glimpse of the early scoring potential with Atkinson, and he’s scored at least 20 goals in a season since 2013-14. That total reached a career-high in 2016-17 when he scored 35. Last season, marred by early-season struggles and a broken foot that cost him a month of playing time, Atkinson still managed 24 goals in 65 games.

With his team-leading 19 goals and 30 points already this season, Atkinson is averaging 1.15 points-per-game. Well on his way to his best season to date. On pace for over 50 goals, Atkinson was sixth in goal scoring (10) for the month of November.

And the scoring-binge really took off last season. In the 59 games between January 25, 2018, the day he returned from the broken foot, and now, Atkinson is fourth among all NHLers with 37 goals. Over that same span, his 63 points gives him 1.07 points-per-game.

On Saturday, Atkinson earned his 300th career point with his second period assist at the Islanders. He went to even greater heights once again last night, scoring three times in the Blue Jackets loss against the Flames. The hat trick was his second on the season, which also placed him No. 1 among the franchise with six three-goal games, surpassing Rick Nash.

Currently, Atkinson is enjoying a new personal best 11-game points streak. That also intertwined with another new-career high, a seven-game goal streak that ties him with Geoff Sanderson for the franchise-most.

Hidden Gem

Taken in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft, Atkinson may not have projected to turn into the type of scorer that headlined that year’s class, Steven Stamkos. But he certainly has outshined forgotten sixth overall pick, former Blue Jacket, Nikita Filatov.

Mr. Swift had this tweet recently:

Player A and Player B represented Atkinson and William Nylander respectfully. Nylander made headlines off the ice for the bulk of the season he’s missed due to his contract-hiatus with the Maple Leafs. While he eventually signed the dotted line for six years, $41.77 million, he is essentially getting the same value of Atkinson’s seven-year, $41.25 deal.

The difference being Nylander is in his third NHL season and already has 135 career points (48 goals, 87 assists). Both players can blossom alone, and most assuredly, with a stacked supporting cast.

Another element that is helping Atkinson this season? He’s shooting the puck more. To the tune of a career-high 19.0 shooting percentage, just behind Pierre-Luc Dubois (20.0%). It’s probably no accident that Atkinson and Dubois have had the success they’ve had when on a line with Artemi Panarin.

5v5 Panarin-Dubois-Atkinson since 2017-18

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF CA CF% FF FA FF% SF SA SF% GF GA GF% SCF SCA SCF% HDCF HDCA HDCF% HDGF HDGA HDGF% MDCF MDCA MDCF% MDGF MDGA MDGF% LDCF LDCA LDCF% LDGF LDGA LDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoffs Neu. Zone Faceoffs Def. Zone Faceoffs Off. Zone Faceoff %
Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF CA CF% FF FA FF% SF SA SF% GF GA GF% SCF SCA SCF% HDCF HDCA HDCF% HDGF HDGA HDGF% MDCF MDCA MDCF% MDGF MDGA MDGF% LDCF LDCA LDCF% LDGF LDGA LDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoffs Neu. Zone Faceoffs Def. Zone Faceoffs Off. Zone Faceoff %
Cam Atkinson Pierre-Luc Dubois Artemi Panarin 90 586:24 636 538 54.17 496 408 54.87 355 312 53.22 39 23 62.9 324 253 56.15 118 104 53.15 20 12 62.5 206 149 58.03 11 9 55 274 245 52.79 8 2 80 10.99 92.63 1.036 271 265 96 73.84
Cam Atkinson Pierre-Luc Dubois w/o Artemi Panarin 91 71:28 56 83 40.29 43 61 41.35 29 43 40.28 3 6 33.33 33 38 46.48 16 17 48.48 1 3 25 17 21 44.74 2 2 50 18 35 33.96 0 1 0 10.34 86.05 0.964 18 11 51 26.09
Cam Atkinson w/o Pierre-Luc Dubois Artemi Panarin 90 249:31 282 218 56.4 215 161 57.18 164 122 57.34 14 9 60.87 116 113 50.66 49 45 52.13 7 5 58.33 67 68 49.63 4 2 66.67 148 93 61.41 3 2 60 8.54 92.62 1.012 84 82 57 59.57
Cam Atkinson w/o Pierre-Luc Dubois w/o Artemi Panarin 91 354:58 315 392 44.55 245 287 46.05 187 204 47.83 19 15 55.88 157 172 47.72 73 72 50.34 9 8 52.94 84 100 45.65 4 3 57.14 138 184 42.86 5 4 55.56 10.16 92.65 1.028 102 130 150 40.48
w/o Cam Atkinson Pierre-Luc Dubois Artemi Panarin 107 531:06 624 465 57.3 484 334 59.17 342 263 56.53 22 16 57.89 293 253 53.66 110 97 53.14 13 10 56.52 183 156 53.98 8 5 61.54 290 179 61.83 1 1 50 6.43 93.92 1.003 215 198 111 65.95
w/o Cam Atkinson Pierre-Luc Dubois w/o Artemi Panarin 109 346:03 333 306 52.11 264 233 53.12 206 176 53.93 13 19 40.63 170 143 54.31 68 59 53.54 6 11 35.29 102 84 54.84 6 8 42.86 134 130 50.76 1 0 100 6.31 89.2 0.955 112 105 84 57.14
w/o Cam Atkinson w/o Pierre-Luc Dubois Artemi Panarin 107 328:55 353 293 54.64 263 227 53.67 186 167 52.69 13 10 56.52 164 151 52.06 59 64 47.97 7 7 50 105 87 54.69 1 3 25 165 121 57.69 5 0 100 6.99 94.01 1.01 79 57 75 51.3
Natural Stat Trick

As the statistics for the three players above show when on a line together, and how they fare without one another, it shows the type of magic that line is poised to display on a nightly basis, as Pale Dragon highlighted recently.

I hate to go down this road yet again, but it begs the question of how different it could look without Panarin, and the Blue Jackets might have to deal with that reality sooner than later.

But as Atkinson struggled in the first half of last season, we’re seeing the full firepower of the three players this year. Remember last season, the first line with Panarin was a work in progress, as John Tortorella originally planned to slot Alexander Wennberg on the top line. No one quite envisioned the struggles Wennberg would face with consistency, but even more so, the quick ascension of Dubois to the top line and how much his progressions would come to fruition, and in terms of on-ice point production.

Right from the start this year, we knew what the top line would consist of. And it’s been fun to watch every single night.