Cam Atkinson

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What’s wrong with the Blue Jackets?

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After putting together a solid campaign last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets came out of the gate strong in 2017-18. They won five of their first six games and it looked like they were going to be a shoe-in to make the playoffs again. But after a good start, things have fallen apart in a hurry.

As of right now, they’re clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re tied with the Islanders for that spot, but they do own a game in hand. The Hurricanes, who have also played one more game than the Jackets, are one point back.

So, it’s safe to suggest that Columbus is far from a lock to make the playoffs at this point.

“You pick up the standings today, we’re right in the middle of it,” head coach John Tortorella said on Wednesday, per the team’s website. “That’s where we’re going to look to the next day. I’m going to show ’em stuff [Thursday], as far as some of the things that I think we’re getting more consistent at, as I’ve talked about some inconsistencies with our team, and just get it ready for our next game.

“Like I was talking to the coaches today [about], I’m excited about the challenge of the struggle that we’re in right now, by where we could go if we just stay within [ourselves]. That’s when you become a better team. So, it’s going to be a grind. I’m not sure where we come out at the end, but it’s certainly an opportunity to find out something about yourself as a coach, an individual coach and a coaching staff; individual player and team concept as a team, to find out what you can do here.”

It’s good to see that Tortorella is embracing the struggles and using them as an opportunity to improve his team, but why are they having such a hard time of late? Let’s take a deeper look.

Where are the goals?

In 2016-17, only the Penguins, Wild, Capitals, Rangers and Leafs scored more than the Blue Jackets, who had 249 goals. Cam Atkinson (35) and Nick Foligno (26) led the way in that category last year. But they also got double digit goal totals from 10 other players.

Their top scorer in 2017-18 is Josh Anderson, who has 16 goals in 51 games. Artemi Panarin, who was acquired from Chicago for Brandon Saad, leads the team in points with 42 in 53 games. Those are respectable totals, but the players who were big contributors last year just haven’t been able to replicate the same offensive totals.

Atkinson has been a shell of the player he was last year. Even before he missed 11 games with a foot injury last month, he was already struggling badly. The 28-year-old has just eight goals and 17 points in 37 contests. That’s not enough production from a guy that signed a seven-year, $41.125 million extension at the beginning of the year.

Foligno, who had 51 points in 79 games last season, is on pace to 15 goals and 34 points over 82 games this year. Again, it’s easy to see why the team’s offensive totals have dried up.

In 13 games since the start of 2018, the Blue Jackets have scored two goals or fewer in 10 of those outings (Not counting goals they got for winning the shootout). Clearly, that’s not a recipe for success.

Special Teams struggles

It’s no secret that the Blue Jackets power play has been abysmal for most of the year. Even when things were going well for them in terms of wins and losses, they couldn’t score goals on the man-advantage. They’re the only team in the league that has converted on less than 15 percent of the power play opportunities. Yes, that part of their game has been better lately, but they still have a long way to go.

To make matters worse, their penalty killing has also struggled pretty badly of late. Their PK ranks fifth from the bottom at 75.2 percent. Columbus has dropped four games in row and six of their last seven. In those seven games, they’ve given up power play goals to Erik Haula and Brad Hunt in a 6-3 loss to Vegas, Brendan Perlini in a 2-1 win over Arizona, Jason Zucker in a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota, Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc in a 3-1 loss to San Jose, Nick Leddy in a 4-3 loss to the Islanders and John Carlson in a 3-2 loss to Washington.

Outside of the ugly loss to the Golden Knights, all the other games were decided by one or two goals. Executing on special teams is the difference between winning and losing tight decisions right now.

Thankfully for the Jackets, they can continue to lean on one of the best goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky. Despite their recent struggles, they still rank 11th in the league in goals against with 146. Even though his numbers have dipped from last year to this year, he’s still managed to keep them in a lot of games. What would happen if they didn’t have him between the pipes?

Deadline Outlook

It’s become increasingly clear that the Blue Jackets need someone that can put the puck in the net. Many have mentioned a possible reunion with veteran winger Rick Nash. That wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad idea. He spent many years there, which should benefit him when it comes to making the adjustment to his new team. Also, three of Nash’s 16 goals have come on the man-advantage with New York this season. Panarin (five) is the only Blue Jacket that has more than three this year. Nash is just one possibility. If they don’t want to pay for a rental, they could also look to acquire Mike Hoffman from Ottawa.

When it comes to improving the penalty kill, they could look to add a veteran two-way forward. One name that comes to mind is Tomas Plekanec out of Montreal. The Canadiens are out of the playoff picture, so they could be willing to deal the 35-year-old pending unrestricted free agent. Plekanec’s offensive game has deteriorated over the last couple of seasons, but he’s still a useful player.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Banged up Blue Jackets add Jussi Jokinen off waivers

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are dealing with a number of injuries up front with Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson and rookie Sonny Milano all currently sidelined for at least a few more weeks due to injury.

Atkinson is on long-term injured reserve due to a foot injury, while Dubinsky is out due to an orbital bone fracture.

The team also announced on Wednesday that Milano will now be sidelined for 4-to-6 weeks due to an oblique tear.

All of that has put a pretty significant dent in their depth and no doubt played a role in their recent slump that has seen them go 3-6-0 over their past nine games, a stretch that has seen them score just 18 goals (only two per game).

They attempted to address that in some way on Wednesday when they announced that they have claimed veteran forward Jussi Jokinen off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings.

“Jussi Jokinen is a player we know very well. He can line up at center or either wing, is good in the faceoff circle and can play on the power play and kill penalties,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement released by the team.

“He has been a very good player in the National Hockey League for many years and we believe he will add great experience and versatility to our lineup.”

It’s been a difficult season for Jokinen as he now joins his third team of the season. He started the season with the Edmonton Oilers after signing a one-year, $1.1 million contract in free agency. But after just 14 games and zero goals with the team he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Mike Cammalleri. He played 18 games with the Kings, scoring one goal and adding four assists, before being placed on waivers.

Jokinen has been an underrated player for much of his career and had always been good for around 15 goals and 50 points over 82 games. Now that he is in his age 34 season that production has obviously declined.

But with the injury situation up front with Atkinson, Dubinsky and now Milano all sidelined the Blue Jackets were in desperate need of adding some additional depth. Given the low cost it is worth a shot to see if Jokinen can still provide something.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Cam Atkinson’s season to forget gets even worse

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The season that’s quickly become one to forget for Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets got even worse as The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that the forward suffered a broken foot and will miss 4-6 weeks.

Atkinson will have surgery Tuesday or Wednesday after blocking a Seth Jones shot during Saturday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers. And if you’re keeping track, he now joins Alex Wenneberg, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray and Brandon Dubinsky out of a Blue Jackets’ lineup that is currently tied with the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division with 46 points, one point behind the division-leading New Jersey Devils.

Let’s take a look at just how much of a nightmare it’s been of late for the 28-year-old Atkinson, who has only six goals and 13 points in 32 games this season:

Nov. 17: Signs seven-year, $40.25 million extention (that’s good!)

Nov. 24: Scores twice in win over Ottawa (that’s good!)

Dec. 9: Watches win over Arizona Coyotes as a healthy scratch (that’s bad!)

Dec. 23: Goalless in 13 games, suffers broken foot blocking shot, out 4-6 weeks. (that’s real bad!)

This all comes one season after Atkinson scored 35 goals and recorded 62 points while helping lead the franchise back to the postseason. Fortunately for the Blue Jackets, they’ve still managed to find success while he and others struggle offensively. Having a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky helps mightily in that area.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT presents: Fantasy Festivus

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Ah, the holidays: a time of lists, reckless spending, and themed posts.

It’s time to dust off that aluminum pole from the crawl space, gather friends and family, and celebrate Fantasy Festivus, created by Frank Costanza of “Seinfeld” fame. For more on the sacred event, check out the video at the bottom of this post.

Actually, let’s cut out the feats of strength (maybe check this post for something similar to that?) and go straight to the good stuff: an airing of fantasy hockey grievances.

(“I got a lot of problems with you people.”)

The Montreal Canadiens, in general

Apologies to Phillip Danault, a former Blackhawks forward who’s clearly carving out his niche in Montreal … but it’s not the GREATEST sign when he’s leading your team in scoring, and with 21 points in that.

Claude Julien is a strong tactical coach, yet you could argue that some of his preferences put scorers at a disadvantage. If that’s not enough, GM Marc Bergevin has also stacked the deck against Julien, in part by removing fleeter, puck-moving defensemen for rough-and-tumble types who tend to clog up the works.

Some of it’s bad luck, no doubt.

  • We’re getting to the point where it might be time to worry about Max Pacioretty, whose puck luck has been especially troubling. He’s only connected on 5.8 percent of his shots on goal (eight goals on a ridiculous 137 SOG) so far this season.
  • Injuries haven’t been kind, with Shea Weber sidelined indefinitely and Carey Price missing an extended period of time.

Still, there are elements of these struggles that are self-inflicted.

It’s still frustrating to see Alex Galchenyuk average just 15:03 TOI per game, being that he’s tied for third in scoring with Brendan Gallagher, another useful forward logging less than 16 minutes per night.

Julien might get angered by turnovers and other mistakes made by offensive-minded players who sometimes fail at trying to make something happen, but what about all of the chances that never happen with more modestly skilled players? This is a frustrating lesson in hockey’s version of “You need to spend money to make money.”

If you’re in an auction league, hopefully you didn’t budget too much for Montreal.

More grievances

  • Brent Burns‘ slow start – Now with six goals and 22 points, Burns has mostly worked his way out of an early-season slump, although he still might not be delivering at the level many expected if they used a third, second, or even first-round pick on the bearded one. But, oh, that start. A guy who scores like a prolific sniper took until Nov. 24, his 21st game of 2017-18, to finally score a goal.

If you traded Burns while he was really slumping, then an extra lump of coal. If you took advantage of his tough times in an advantageous trade, then you’re smart and possibly a good listener.

  • Erik Karlsson kinda sorta being human – He’s still awesome, and arguably still the best defenseman in the NHL, but Karlsson’s struggled this season. Maybe the whole “missing part of his ankle” thing limits his scoring?
  • Dustin Byfuglien is like those blueliners, only hurt and thus unable to redeem himself.
  • Misc. underachievers – Whether it be because of injuries, inconsistency, or both, Ryan Getzlaf, Rasmus Ristolainen, Cam Atkinson, and quite a few others have disappointed us. Shame.
  • Matt Duchene – C’mon, Duchene. He’ll start producing more regularly but (fidgets like an impatient child).
  • Especially painful plus/minus guys – Look, I agree that plus/minus is a really weak stat, yet most fantasy leagues still use it.

With that in mind, some stars are hurting. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has more minuses (-25) than points (19), sporting the NHL’s worst minus. You can summarize Jack Eichel being on an island in many ways by noting his -13 rating, despite all of his rage and efforts.

Again, you can mostly chalk this stuff up to being on bad teams and also power-play proficiency not helping that category, but it still stings in fantasy.

  • The Carolina Hurricanes falling short of the hype – Year after year, this team’s youth entices preseason hype like a puck-based siren call. So far, fantasy owners have been better off filling their ears with beeswax. Scott Darling‘s been a disappointment in particular, going 8-10-6 with an ugly .896 save percentage.

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So, consider that an abridged list of grievances; we’d be here all day if every grievance needed to be named.

Surely there are others who’ve burned you this season, however, so shake your fist (or Festivus-themed aluminium pole?) at anyone I missed in the comments. Also feel free to celebrate feats of strength if you’re in a merrier mood.

You don’t even need to pin George’s dad to share your own thoughts. It’s a Festivus miracle!

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson hits ‘reset button’ after healthy scratch

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The reset button has been hit and Cam Atkinson will return to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ lineup Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers.

Atkinson, who has six goals and nine points in 25 games this season, was made a healthy scratch on Saturday, three weeks after signing a seven-year, $40.25 million extension. John Tortorella’s decision to sit the forward who scored 35 goals last season wasn’t a hard one for the head coach, mainly because the player forced the issue.

“This isn’t to kick a player,” Tortorella said on Monday. “Cam Atkinson is a very important player, and especially for this coach. He’s in every situation, and that’s what I think of him as a player.”

It wasn’t an easy past couple of days for Atkinson. An embarrassing scratch not long after inking a big extension wasn’t an ideal way to show off his worth to the franchise. But on Sunday he received a text from Martin St. Louis, an off-season Connecticut golf buddy and someone who knows pretty well how Tortorella operates. For more than a half hour the former Tampa Bay Lightning star reminded the 28-year-old that he’s a good player and that the franchise has an incredible amount of confidence in him, as displayed by the contract they just handed him.

[Blue Jackets bet big on Cam Atkinson]

Since Saturday’s scratch, Atkinson had stayed on the ice after skates working on his shot and getting extra touches with the puck to try and restore his confidence. There was time spent watching video, too. And just as important, there was plenty of communication with Tortorella.

“It’s one of those things where once you go down that dark alley, one thing leads to another and it’s hard to get out of it,” Atkinson said. “It’s not so much pointing the fingers, but sometimes you tend to blame your teammates or linemates and that’s something you can’t do. It’s something I’ve tried not to do… Being a healthy scratch was probably the best thing for me.”

There’s more than one Blue Jackets player struggling at the moment, which Tortorella admits is a failure on his part to find a way to get them going again. To the head coach, scratching a player isn’t a form of punishment, it’s a way to help.

Atkinson has hit the 20-goal mark in each of the last four seasons, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause or being crushed under the weight of his extension. Now, after a night in the press box, he knows he needs to respond.

“Obviously, you never want to be a healthy scratch, but it gives you a chance to reassess and hit the reset button, realize where you are at that point in time in the season and what you need to do to get better,” Atkinson said.

“It’s a wake-up call. I take full responsibility. I know I need to be way better, and I will be.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.