Career Leaders: Goals
To the neutral observer, or even the relatively new Blue Jackets fan, that doesn’t seem all that strange. Rick Nash was the best player in the franchise’s early days - despite all of the struggles as a team, Nash was able to produce. Cam Atkinson, an NHL All Star in 2017 and 2019, doesn’t seem like an outlier on that list. He’s been one of the best offensive players for the Blue Jackets during a period where the franchise has experienced its highest points, in both the regular season as well as the playoffs.
But Cam Atkinson wasn’t always that sure thing, a scoring threat and penalty killing expert expected to help carry the offensive load for a team that would go on to upset arguably the greatest regular season team in NHL history.
How did the former sixth round pick, one who made his debut for a 65 point team that started the season 11-25-5, work his way up to being a two-time NHL All Star?
Let’s go on a journey together to find out.
Cam Atkinson was born and raised in Connecticut and honed his craft at Avon Old Frarms School in Avon, Connecticut. Avon Old Farms hockey teams are perennially strong, having won eight Division One New England Championships in their history. Atkinson is one of several NHL players the boarding school has produced, along with Brian Leetch (a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee), Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, and Nick Bonino of the Nashville Predators. An all boys school, Avon Old Farms has a rich tradition with 15 varsity sports.
Atkinson was chosen in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft (151st overall). For those who may not remember, this draft saw the Tampa Bay Lightning take Steven Stamkos with the first overall pick. The Columbus Blue Jackets picked sixth overall and chose future bust Nikita Filatov with the sixth overall pick. Other Jackets draft picks from that year include Cody Goloubef, Steven Delisle, Drew Olson, Matt Calvert, Tomas Kubalik, Brent Regner, and Sean Collins. Outside of Calvert and Atkinson, none of those draft picks truly panned out for the Blue Jackets and contributed at the NHL level.
Atkinson, however, has contributed not only offensively but to a turnaround of a moribund franchise that sorely needed his prowess in front of goal and his leadership in the locker room.
After being selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cam Atkinson went on to play for the Boston College Eagles in the Hockey East conference. Atkinson blossomed under Eagles head coach Jerry York; as a freshman, Atkinson scored just 19 points in 36 games before his breakout sophomore campaign. York is the winningest active coach in NCAA hockey and has a 624-323-88 record at Boston College in his time at the school.
As a sophomore, Atkinson took collegiate hockey by storm. He led the country in scoring with 30 goals (30-23-53 in 42 games) and scored two goals in the national championship as the Eagles defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 5-0 to win the title. Boston College was the number one team in the country entering the NCAA tournament, sporting a 29-10-3 record, and scored 171 goals over the course of the season, best in the country. Atkinson returned to Boston College for his junior year where he scored 31 goals for the Eagles (31-21-52) but the team was upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Colorado College.
After his junior season, Atkinson turned pro and forwent his senior year of college, choosing instead to report to the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. There, he played just five games before the end of the Falcons’ season yet Atkinson managed to average a point per game, scoring three goals and registering two assists in his five games.
Atkinson made the opening night roster of the 2011-12 Columbus Blue Jackets and scored his first goal against the Vancouver Canucks in a 3-2 loss. Despite the goal, Atkinson was sent back down to Springfield after just four games. His demotion allowed him to develop further as Atkinson scored 29 goals and 15 assists and was named an AHL All Star. He was called up late in the season for the Blue Jackets and showed off his scoring touch, including notching his first career NHL hat trick against the Colorado Avalanche.
Atkinson split the next season between Springfield and Columbus as he struggled to find his finishing touch in the NHL - despite 35 games with the big club, Atkinson posted just a 9-9-18 mark. In the AHL, however, his development continued as he honed his skills around the net. Atkinson was rewarded with a 17-21-38 scoring line in his 33 games in Springfield.
Finally, Cam Atkinson was ready for the big time.
Since the 2013-14 season, Cam Atkinson has not only been an NHL regular but a mainstay in the top six of the Columbus Blue Jackets lineup. Atkinson chipped in 40 points for the Blue Jackets in his first full year in Columbus (21-19-40) and had three points (1-2-3) as the Blue Jackets won their first playoff games in franchise history before falling in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Over the next two seasons, Atkinson developed into the goal scorer Columbus Blue Jackets fans would fall in love with. He finished the 2014-15 season with 40 points (22-18-40) before topping 50 points for the first time in the 2015-16 season as he notched 27-26-53 for a Blue Jackets team ravaged by injuries. Those two years set the stage for what he would become under John Tortorella.
In 2016-17, Cam Atkinson exploded, as did the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets finished with 108 points, the highest total in franchise history, and 50 wins. Cam Atkinson led the team in points with 62, finishing with 35 goals and 27 assists. Atkinson finished with 10 power play goals, three shorthanded goals (fifth in the NHL), and nine game winning goals (second in the NHL) and was named to the Metropolitan Division All Star team for the first time in his career.
Cam Atkinson had arrived.
Atkinson followed up his breakout All Star season with his most disjointed season to date - in a contract year, no less. Atkinson slumped at the beginning of the year, later admitting the pressure of playing for a new contract was affecting him. At the end of the day, though, Atkinson said there was nowhere else he’d rather play.
“It’s no secret that I wanted to be here at the start of my career and finish my career here,” Atkinson said. “One of the main reasons I did sign here is I know the direction this team is going with this organization. We’re a young team and we’re going to continue to get better and grow and mature and hopefully win a Stanley Cup here.”
After returning from a broken foot, Atkinson helped lead the Blue Jackets back to the playoffs, finishing the season with 24-22-46 in 65 games played. In the playoffs that season, Atkinson finished with 2-2-4 as the Blue Jackets blew a two games to zero lead and fell in six games to the Washington Capitals.
A lackluster 2017-18 season fell by the wayside as Cam Atkinson returned to form in 2018-19. Atkinson finished the season with 41 goals (tying the single-season franchise record, set by Rick Nash) and 28 assists, good for 69 points, the most he has finished a season with in his career. Freed from the pressure of playing for a contract, Atkinson was again named to the Metropolitan All Star team. Atkinson finished the season six thing in the league in goals scored, ninth in even strength goals (with 29), fifth in game winning goals (with eight), and fourth in the league in hat tricks (with two). In the playoffs, Atkinson scored two goals and registered six assists for eight points as the Blue Jackets upset the Tampa Bay Lightning before falling in six games to the Boston Bruins.
This past season, Atkinson was plagued by injuries that limited him to just 44 games at the time of the pause due to COVID-19. Atkinson was, as it happens, set to return from an ankle sprain on the night the NHL shut down for the foreseeable future. As we stand, Atkinson has 12 goals and 14 assists on the year.
Despite his small stature and build (Atkinson is listed at just 5-8 and 175 pounds, per Hockey Reference), Atkinson has developed into a multi-time NHL All Star and a lynchpin of the Blue Jackets offense. How has he managed to do that?
With smooth hands, great finishing, and unparalleled work ethic he has developed since his youth.
“I think I have to have [that attitude],” Atkinson said. “Everyone at every single age, every single level, told me I wouldn’t make it to the next level. So I think that’s kind of fueled my fire, for sure. Obviously being a smaller guy, you have to have a little arrogance to your game. That’s what’s made me the person, the player, I am today.”
It is no secret among fans that Atkinson works out with fellow small NHL veteran Martin St. Louis in the offseason. St. Louis won a Hart Trophy and two scoring titles with the Tampa Bay Lightning and has helped mold Atkinson into the player he is today - a scorer, but also a 200 foot player that contributes on the penalty kill as well as wears an “A” in the locker room - a sign of respect from his teammates as well as the coaching staff.
Almost an afterthought at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Atkinson has blossomed into an NHL All Star and a leader in the Blue Jackets locker room. He’s grown into a fan favorite, a goal scorer, and routinely plays in all situations for a team that cannot succeed without his contributions on a nightly basis. Once considered a trade piece before his extension, Atkinson will likely finish as the first Blue Jacket to be drafted here, play his entire career here, and retire in Columbus with his family.
Not bad for the former third overall pick of the sixth round.