He has spent his entire NHL career with them. When they defeated the Washington Capitals 3-0 at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday, he became the sixth player in their history to reach 500 games. He is under contract for six more seasons, two more than anyone else on the roster.
How much does he believe in hockey in Columbus? He is part-owner of The Battery, a 16,000-square-foot hockey training facility in nearby Plain City, Ohio, with ice, synthetic ice, a gym, a lounge and plans to expand.
The 29-year-old from Connecticut plans to live in the area after he retires someday.
“I love it here,” said Atkinson, whose 327 points (176 goals, 151 points) rank second in team history to Rick Nash’s 547 (289, 258). “It’s a sports city for sure. Our fans are just waiting for us to bring that Cup back to Nationwide. I think we’re pretty close and it’s only a matter of time.”
Yes, Atkinson is talking about winning the Cup even though the Blue Jackets are the only NHL team that has never won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could leave as unrestricted free agents July 1, if they aren’t gone by the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET.
That’s the attitude this team needs at this tumultuous time, and it’s justified.
Can you list the five teams that lead the NHL in wins since the start of the 2016-17 season? They’re the Tampa Bay Lightning (138), the Capitals (135), the Winnipeg Jets (128), the Nashville Predators (127) and the Blue Jackets (127).
Columbus lost in the Eastern Conference First Round each of the past two seasons, but to the eventual Stanley Cup champions: the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, the Capitals in 2018. The Blue Jackets were a shot from taking a 3-0 series lead against the Capitals, but lost Game 3 in double overtime. Four of the six games in the series went to OT.
This season, despite all the stuff swirling around Bobrovsky and Panarin, they have the ninth-best record in the NHL (.609), ahead of the Capitals (.605), Predators (.602), Penguins (.580) and Vegas Golden Knights (.569).
Since a five-game losing streak and a team meeting, they have won four in a row. The last two were against the teams that played in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. They defeated the Golden Knights 4-3 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, then dominated the Capitals on Tuesday. They’re 3-1-0 against Washington this season.
“I think we’re so close,” Atkinson said. “We have all the right pieces, a young team still obviously learning and maturing.”
Bobrovsky and Panarin are big pieces. Bobrovsky is a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie. Panarin is the Blue Jackets’ leading scorer with 64 points (22 goals, 42 assists) and arguably the best skater Columbus has had.
Panarin has averaged 1.09 points per game since Columbus acquired him in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on June 23, 2017. No one else has averaged a point per game for the Blue Jackets.
Neither Bobrovsky nor Panarin is negotiating a contract extension. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen will have to weigh what he can get in return for them before the deadline against how it would affect Columbus’ playoff chances.
The standings are so tight that the Blue Jackets (32-20-3) are third in the Metropolitan Division with 67 points, two behind the Capitals with two games in hand and five behind the New York Islanders with a game in hand, but two ahead of the Penguins with a game in hand and three ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes. They play the Islanders at Nationwide Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, MSG+, NHL.TV).
In other words, they have the potential to make noise in the playoffs or to miss them, and what happens with Bobrovsky and Panarin will be critical.
It has to be tough on Atkinson. He has made a commitment to Columbus. He leads the Blue Jackets with 31 goals, four from his NHL career high (35 in 2016-17), skating on a line with Panarin and center Pierre-Luc Dubois.
He takes a big-picture view, though.
“It’s out of our control, and I think we’ve handled it in a businesslike forum and not let the media and all the negative BS get to us, and I think we’re just handling it the right way,” Atkinson said.
“Whatever happens, happens. I don’t make those decisions. They’re above my pay grade. But we have the group of guys in here to make a run, and Jarmo’s always been good where, if he does trade star players or what, he always gets some pretty good players in return. So, I have all the faith in him.”
Atkinson has seen big names come and go. He’s still here. The Blue Jackets are still here. They will still be here no matter what happens.
“Listen, I’ve been here eight years,” Atkinson said. “So, I’ve gone through Rick Nash. I’ve gone through [Marian] Gaborik, [Jeff] Carter. I’ve gone through some pretty star players. We’re going to be just fine. Jarmo is not afraid to make moves and do what’s best for the club. So I’m not sure what he’s going to do. I wish I had a crystal ball. But we’re not worried.”