CHICAGO — In case you thought the Columbus Blue Jackets may still be trying to get over the off-season departures of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, we present you with the unvarnished thoughts of Cam Atkinson.
Asked Thursday during the NHL/NHLPA player media tour what he’d miss most about the players who left town in free agency, Atkinson didn’t blink: “Nothing.”
He was serious, too.
Or at least semi-serious.
It’s not so much that there’s personal animosity, it’s just that life moves on. Atkinson has been part of the Blue Jackets organization since the 2008 NHL draft and signed a seven-year extension with the team in 2017.
And he refuses to mourn the loss of an all-star winger and all-star goalie who chose to go off in search of greener pastures when they already had something pretty good cooking at home.
“We’re in a position where the culture we built the last four years — if you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here and we don’t need you here,” said Atkinson. “Obviously we’ll miss them, but we want guys that want to wear the Blue Jackets sweater and represent Columbus.”
It was an unusual scenario for an organization that went all-in last season and shockingly swept the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning out of the first round. The euphoria didn’t last long when Panarin signed an $81.5-million, seven-year deal with the New York Rangers and Bobrovsky signed a $70-million, seven-year contract with Florida on the first day of free agency.
The Blue Jackets really only made a concerted effort to retain Panarin, who had 169 points in 160 regular-season games with them. They came to the table with a monster offer right before July 1, but were rebuffed.
The Russian found a particularly strong fit on a line with Atkinson, who managed a career-best 41 goals last season.
“I liked playing with Bread, obviously. Played with him for two years,” said Atkinson. “Him and I became pretty close and still are really close. I talk to him a decent amount. I think just watching him and how he kind of carries himself and realizing how special of a player he is, I tell everyone to this day: I think he’s the best player I’ve ever seen.”
Still, despite the loss of Panarin’s offensive talent, the 30-year-old winger believes the biggest question hanging over the Blue Jackets is how they’ll fair with the unproven goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
Plus Atkinson remembers the way Columbus amassed 108 points back in 2016-17 — the season before Panarin arrived via trade. The Blue Jackets played a more grinding style back then and coach John Tortorella is promising a return to that lunch-bucket mentality.
“Obviously when you lose some star power — some high-end skill — you’re going to have to dial it back a little bit,” said Atkinson. “Knowing when to take some chances on the ice and knowing when to kind of live to fight another day. Block some more shots, especially with our goaltending. Obviously they’re good goaltenders but helping them out.
“Playing with a chip on our shoulders because everyone kind of has written off, which is great. It’s fine. I love that. I’ve had that mentality my whole life and hopefully the other guys view it the same way.”