Desperately needing a makeover after a listless season, the Flyers made their third blockbuster trade in the last week Saturday.
In an exchange of highly productive right wingers, they acquired Cam Atkinson from Columbus and sent Jake Voracek to the Blue Jackets. The Flyers acquired Voracek from Columbus in 2011, and he had 10 strong seasons in Philadelphia.
Atkinson, 32, a smallish, in-your-face type of player, had 15 goals and 34 points last season. He had 41 goals in the NHL’s last full season, in 2018-19. He has four years remaining on his contract, which has an annual $5.875 cap hit -- $2.375 million less than Voracek’s.
“He drives play,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said, noting Atkinson has long been one of the league’s best five-on-five players.
In the last week, Fletcher has added Atkinson and veteran defensemen Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen.
“We just can’t keep bringing the same players back year after year and expect different results,” Fletcher said. “We had to make changes this year, and the players we’ve added are all what I call high-energy, competitive people.
“We need some juice. We need to change the energy in the room.”
Besides his goal scoring, Atkinson should aid the Flyers’ penalty kill and power play. Atkinson had four shorthanded goals last season, tied for second in the NHL.
Voracek, who turns 32 next month, shared the team lead with 43 points (9 goals, 34 assists) last season. He has a cap hit of $8.25 million for the next three years.
Atkinson figures to play on the top line.
“I’ve been here a long time and I love Columbus, but I couldn’t be more excited to join the Flyers’ organization,” Atkinson, wearing a Gritty T-shirt he borrowed from his wife, said in a Zoom call with reporters.
Atkinson said the changes Fletcher has made will pay dividends. Changes, he implied, can invigorate players.
“I think my energy alone is really going to help the team,” he said before attending his 3-year-old son’s birthday party.
Fletcher called Atkinson an elite penalty killer, and said his attacking style will benefit the team.
“We were way too easy to play against last season,” he said.
Fletcher said last year’s locker room had little energy and “nobody smiled.”
He thinks the enthusiastic Atkinson will change that, too.
The general manager said he hasn’t been sleeping much lately because he has been working long hours.
“I got so pumped up talking to Cam Atkinson today,” Fletcher said, smiling, “and I didn’t need another cup of coffee after my conversation with him.”
At BC with Kevin Hayes
Atkinson played at Boston College with Flyers center Kevin Hayes, and is also friends with James van Riemsdyk and Giroux. He is extremely close with former Flyer Scott Hartnell.
Hartnell “just rants and raves about what a special place Philly is,” Atkinson said. “As you can see, I’ve already got my Gritty shirt, so I’m ready to rock and roll.”
Voracek, who will return to the Wells Fargo Center with the Jackets on Jan. 20, said he could feel a trade coming because “I’m pretty active on social media.” He said he was “open” to a trade and that he had a love-hate relationship with Flyers fans.
Lately, he said, there was “a lot of hate” on social media.
Voracek added that “it’s a business. I know how it works. There’s no hard feelings between me and Chuck Fletcher.”
Atkinson, Ellis, and Ristolainen have been alternate captains.
“You can never have enough veteran guys and leaders in one room,” Atkinson said. “Collectively, I think it’s going to be really important for this organization.”
Fletcher said the leadership group needed some changes, but that Giroux will remain the captain.
Atkinson has appeared in 627 games over 10 NHL seasons, all with the Blue Jackets. He has 213 goals and 189 assists for 402 points over his career. He is a two-time NHL All-Star (2017, 2019) and has scored at least 20 goals in each of six NHL seasons in which he’s appeared in 65 or more games.
A 5-foot-8, 175-pound Connecticut native, Atkinson was selected by Columbus in the sixth round (157th overall) of the 2008 draft. He made his NHL debut in 2011 following a three-year career at Boston College, where he won a national championship in 2010 and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist in 2011.
With the acquisitions over the last week, the Flyers’ lineup may look like this:
Line 1: Sean Couturier centering Giroux and Atkinson.
Line 2: Hayes centering Joel Farabee and Travis Konecny.
Line 3: Scott Laughton centering van Riemsdyk and Wade Allison.
Line 4: Morgan Frost centering Oskar Lindblom and Nic Aube-Kubel.
Defense: Ivan Provorov and Ellis; Travis Sanheim and Ristolainen; Cam York and Justin Braun.
Goalie: Carter Hart, with his backup to be determined.
The cap space the Flyers gained from the trade could help them sign a quality backup goalie. Fletcher envisions the backup playing 30 games.
A pair of cornerstones
Atkinson has been a Columbus cornerstone, like Voracek was with the Flyers.
“This is a significant trade for our club and we are very excited to welcome Jake Voracek back to the Blue Jackets family. He is a powerful, dynamic offensive player that will be a significant contributor to our club,” Columbus GM said Jarmo Kekalainen said. “Adding a player like that comes at a cost, and I want to thank Cam Atkinson for his many contributions to the Blue Jackets and Columbus community over the past 10 years. He has made a lasting impact on our club.”
The Flyers acquired Voracek and a first-round pick -- it turned out to be Couturier -- in a stunning trade that sent Jeff Carter to Columbus on June 23, 2011. Voracek ranks fifth on the Flyers’ all-time list in assists (427) and 10th with 727 career games.
The Czech Republic native set single-season career highs with 65 assists and 85 points in 82 games in 2017-18. He was also named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team in 2014-15 after notching 81 points (22 goals, 59 assists) in 82 games.
Atkinson said he was looking forward to playing half of his games at the Wells Fargo Center.
“You can just see how passionate the fans are, not just with hockey but all the other professional sports around, even collegiate sports,” he said. “I think winning solves a lot of problems. It seems like you don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Flyers fans. As a player, there’s nothing more exciting than when things are going really well, and the fans have your back. They’re passionate. They want to win just as much as the players do. That’s all you can ask for as a player.”
Said Fletcher: “We’re excited. We think we’re going to be a deep team. It’s going to be a different world, a different camp, a different team.”