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Atkinson looks to regain scoring touch after slow start with Blue Jackets

Forward has seven goals after getting 41 last season

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Cam Atkinson gave his honest opinion.

This was at the NHL Player Media Tour in September when asked each player who attended to name the League's most underrated player.

"Me," Atkinson replied. "I kind of have to prove people wrong every single year."

At the time, Atkinson had a pretty good case. The Columbus Blue Jackets forward tied for sixth in the League last season with 41 goals but finished 10th among right wings in the NHL All-Star Team voting after receiving three third-place votes. 

Atkinson hasn't been as productive so far this season with 18 points (seven goals and 11 assists) in 30 games but has shown signs of life lately with three goals and an assist in his past four games. That included two goals in a 5-2 victory against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Monday.

Video: NYR@CBJ: Atkinson wires home wrister from the slot

Still, Atkinson knows there are some questioning him again.

"I had 41 last year and people still doubt me," Atkinson said. "So I can only imagine what they're saying now. But it's just one of those things where it's got to fuel your fire to prove people wrong."

At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, Atkinson has been doing that throughout his nine NHL seasons. Columbus' sixth-round pick (No. 157) in the 2008 NHL Draft, the 30-year-old has had six straight seasons with at least 20 goals. 

Last season, Atkinson established NHL career highs with 41 goals, 28 assists and 69 points. Those totals surpassed his previous bests of 35 goals, 27 assists and 62 points in 2016-17.

Video: DET@CBJ: Atkinson sweeps in power-play goal down low

But with the Blue Jackets struggling to score and win, Atkinson's woes have become magnified. The Blue Jackets (12-14-4) had lost four straight, scoring five goals over that span, before breaking out with five goals to defeat the Capitals.

Coach John Tortorella thought the win was a step in the right direction for the Blue Jackets and Atkinson, whose bank-shot empty-net goal with 1:48 remaining completed the scoring, but he wants to see more.

"You just want to see energy and he was OK tonight," Tortorella said. "I'm glad he scores an open-net goal. … That's two of them for him tonight. Maybe that will loosen him up and allow him to play. The biggest thing with him is the energy that I just don't think has been there."

Tortorella has cut back on Atkinson's ice time in the past two weeks, including reducing his power-play time. He played 17:00 Monday, include 46 seconds on the power play.

"Do I want to do that? No," Tortorella said. "Cam has been so important to the organization. For the time I've been here, I've used him in so many different spots. … It looks like to me he still doesn't believe this is happening."

Atkinson acknowledged he's experienced some disbelief about his slump. He's tied with forward Oliver Bjorkstrand for the Columbus lead with 100 shots on goal but has a shooting percentage of 7 percent.

"I'm getting shots," Atkinson said. "Maybe not all of them are Grade A chances, but I think with my game I just have to get back to getting to the dirty areas."

Atkinson did that on his first goal Monday, getting position against Washington forward Garnet Hathaway in front to redirect Gustav Nyquist's shot-pass past goalie Braden Holtby 3:27 into the game. 

Video: CBJ@WSH: Atkinson scores in 1st period

But getting to the dirty areas has been an issue at times for the Blue Jackets as a team. It was particularly noticeable in a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday, when Tortorella said he thought they spent too much time on the outside and generated nine scoring chances.

That was the opposite of Columbus' previous game, a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday, when Tortorella said they had 29 scoring chances.

The loss to the Rangers provided a reminder of what the Blue Jackets are missing when forward Artemi Panarin scored the winning goal. Panarin led Columbus with 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) last season and 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) in 2017-18 before signing with New York as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Atkinson played regularly with Panarin over the past two seasons, but quickly points to his production before Panarin was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017 as evidence that his drop-off this season isn't from missing Panarin.

"I'm sure people think that, but I had 35 goals (in 2016-17) before he ever got here and a lot more goals before [that]," Atkinson said. "But it's just one of those things where that's how it's going."

The Blue Jackets are 28th in the NHL in averaging 2.53 goals per game, down from 3.12 last season. Atkinson isn't the only Blue Jackets forward who has struggled. 

After setting NHL career highs with 27 goals, 20 assists and 47 points last season, forward Josh Anderson has four points (one goal, three assists). Bjorkstrand, who scored an NHL career-high 23 goals last season, got his seventh of the season Monday.

"No one expected [Atkinson] to be in this type of situation," Tortorella said. "This team is looking for some scoring desperately and the guys that we've been counting on just have not been there, and it's really put us into a jam here the first 30 games."

And if the Blue Jackets are going to turn things around and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight season, Atkinson understands that he must be one of those who leads the way.

"It's just one of those things where I have to try a little harder and a dig a little deeper myself," Atkinson said. "I think I've been playing better the last couple games, minus the Florida game. That was a goose egg. 

"But I just have to get back to working hard and having fun, and the rest kind of takes care of itself."

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