VOORHEES, N.J. – Cam Atkinson has been down this road so many times before it must feel like old hat to him.
No, not getting scratched for a game by Flyers coach John Tortorella as Atkinson was for Thursday night’s tilt with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Rather, it was the talk the two men had to discuss what led up to the night off. If the tone of the conversation could be summed up in one word, it probably would be “honesty.”
Atkinson played under Tortorella for the better part of six seasons while the two were together in Columbus. They formed a strong coach-player bond which has been re-formed this season after Atkinson missed last season – Tortorella’s first in Philadelphia – due to back surgery.
Obviously, Atkinson has struggled mightily these past couple months, going a career-high 22 straight games without a goal. Odd, because he had scored eight goals in right around the first month or so of the season.
Yet it wasn’t just the lack of scoring which necessitated a night off and a meeting of the minds. Atkinson’s game has slipped in other areas. Among forwards, he’s a team-worse minus-9.
In Edmonton on Tuesday, Atkinson took a critical penalty which led to the Oilers’ go-ahead goal. That could have been the straw which finally broke the coach’s confidence in No. 89.
The two sat down and hashed out what the problems seem to be.
“ ‘Torts’ and I have a long relationship,” Atkinson acknowledged after Friday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center. “It (the conversation) was positive. I take full ownership. I’ve been in the league a long time, I know when I’m on top of my game and when I’m not.
“He’s given me opportunities to try to figure it out a little bit. That’s what I need to do. I’ve got to get back to playing with my energy, demanding the puck, wanting the puck. I kind of let that slide to hoping things would come my way. They haven’t. When I’m on top of my game, I’m one of the better players. So I feel confident in myself. I’ll get back to it.”
Atkinson, 34, has registered 244 goals/470 points in 737 NHL games over a 15-year career so form would suggest this slump won’t last much longer.
In fact, Tortorella plans to put Atkinson back in the lineup when the Flyers play host to the Calgary Flames on Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center.
When a rookie like a Bobby Brink or a Tyson Foerster gets scratched, they call it a “reset” and suggest a night off will allow the player to watch and learn.
Can a reset benefit a grizzled veteran such as Atkinson?
“I think sometimes everyone can,” Atkinson said. “I didn’t play at all last year (neck surgery), not that it’s an excuse. You get so excited to play when you start the season.
“Sometimes you get away from what makes you successful. Being scratched sucks. I don’t wish that for anybody because it’s a pretty crappy feeling. But at the same time, it’s a chance to look in the mirror and realize what I need to do to get back on my game. I have all the confidence in myself. When I start putting the puck in the net, people are going to stop talking.”
In a sense, it’s all about accountability. You know the younger players are watching to see how the older players are treated. The last thing an up-and-coming team like the Flyers needs is a perception of favoritism.
“I think that’s what you want in an organization, you want to hold each other accountable,” Atkinson said. “The coach is going to hold you to a standard no matter who you are, what you’ve done. That’s what makes a great organization.”
It’s important to make sure that feeling of “everyone’s being treated the same way” be prevalent in the locker room.
“There are two ways you can look at it, you can be positive,” Atkinson said. “We’re playing a sport and you’re paid to do so. You go down that negative side and it’s easy how fast your thoughts go the other way. You start doubting yourself.
“For me, to be successful, it’s my swagger, my energy. Just being a good teammate. There’s no reason for me to be negative. I come in with a smile on my face and any way I can help out I try to. I think you will see a different side of me moving forward.”
Tortorella was asked what went into the decision to get Atkinson back in the lineup so quickly.
“Just to see if he responds,” Tortorella said. “This isn’t a ‘hate you, you’re never playing again’ kind of thing. It’s a ‘we need to get some sort of reaction.’ Because it’s been unacceptable. It’s not just the stats. There are so many other things that come into play.
“I want him to play the proper way. I have too much respect for him to let him go down the road he was going. It wasn’t one thing. We’ll see if he can kind of U-turn a bit here and get back on the right road.”
Another scratch from the Columbus game, Morgan Frost, will be back in the lineup on Saturday.
>Praise for the effort
Tortorella was pleased with the way his team played on Thursday night, even though they gave up a 2-0 lead and lost in a shootout.
“I loved our energy last night,” the coach said. “I thought we took a huge step forward in our style of play, of controlling the neutral zone, getting onto the offense. I thought it was one of our most energetic games of even the road trip.”
>Ed Snider Legacy Game
Saturday’s game has been dubbed the Ed Snider Legacy Game. The team founder and longtime owner passed away in April, 2016. Saturday marks his 91st birthday.
“I never spoke to him,” Tortorella said. “I’ve heard so many great things about him. Just the way people have talked to me about him, I have special admiration for him. It goes on daily around here, talking about that man. Happy birthday.”