I have to admit, I actually like what the Blue Jackets did this summer. They don’t have a single first line player in their forward group but what they do have is an incredible amount of second and third line players, with plenty of size, grit and NHL experience. If nothing else, the Blue Jackets finally have a professional hockey team.
So where do Atkinson and Foligno fit in?
Foligno appears to be one of the many interchangeable second/third line types. Last season in Ottawa was Foligno’s best as a pro, scoring 15 goals and 47 points as a frequent second line and second power play unit power forward. He had very little competition for minutes in Ottawa though and the reality is he didn’t see that many minutes last season. Foligno only skated 14:39 minutes per game with 1:19 coming on the power play so there is certainly potential for more offense if he gets the minutes.
But how is Foligno going to get big minutes in Columbus? He has to beat out the likes of RJ Umberger, Brandon Dubinsky, Derrick Brassard, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov and Atkinson for top line minutes and power play time. Umberger, Dubinsky and Anisimov in particular stand as roadblocks for Foligno and because Umberger and Dubinsky both have bigger contracts they may just win out for non-hockey reasons.
Odds are that Foligno’s does see some top line and top power play unit minutes but those minutes will come and go as head coach Todd Richards experiments with different lineups. Even if Foligno wins a top line job though it remains to be seen if he has the consistency necessary to play there on a nightly basis.
Atkinson on the other hand seemingly will have a much easier time finding his niche. Name for me another Blue Jackets forward with Atkinson’s offensive creativity. You can’t because there simply isn’t one out there.
Prospal still has the hockey sense but he has just about run out of juice from the fountain of youth. Also, if you are a subscriber to the Prospal yo-yo theory 2013 projects to be an off year for him.
Johansen is obviously the future for the Jackets but he may not be ready to take over as their top creator and even if he is ready the fact that he has formed a good deal of chemistry skating alongside Atkinson for Springfield in the AHL this season is more of a boost to Atkinson’s chances than an impediment.
Brassard has had plenty of opportunities to prove he is a number one guy but has failed every step of the way. He’s a second liner at best, which isn’t a bad thing it just means he probably doesn’t hold Atkinson back.
For Atkinson, at 5’8”, it’s top line or bust because he simply doesn’t have the game to be a third liner. He does have the dynamic skating, offensive creativity and hockey sense to make it as a top line NHL forward though, or at least as something of a power play specialist. The Blue Jackets will need someone to step up and run their power play and Atkinson, a right-handed shooter, would fit in perfectly setting up shop on the left half boards, a la, Claude Giroux in Philadelphia. This isn’t to say that Atkinson is on Giroux’s level but simply points out that the Jackets’ roster is littered with left-handed shooters (including newly acquired top defenseman Jack Johnson) who could lineup perfectly for one-timers off of Atkinson’s play on the left wall.
This scenario actually played out quite frequently when Atkinson was called up for the final 22 games of last season. During those games Atkinson skated 15:47 per game with 2:52 coming on the power play, frequently as part of a four forward, top unit with Johnson as the lone defenseman.
If it means anything to you, Atkinson was also named to the 2012 United States Men’s World Championship team, which means he has certainly garnered the respect of people at the highest level. Foligno was in fact twice a member of the US Men’s National Team at the World Championships in 2009 and 2010 but he made it there as a much more proven product. At this point we can safely say we know what Foligno is. For Atkinson, who is still very much a prospect, making the World Championships is a validation of his talents, a validation Foligno doesn’t need.
Maybe Atkinson never makes it as an NHL player and becomes just another great AHL scorer (he has 29 points in 25 games this season in the AHL) but you have to figure his upside is at the very least 80 points given his offensive abilities. Foligno on the other hand probably tops out at a Scott Hartnell-like 65 points. Given the upside at stake here and the fact that for guys like Foligno (and Hartnell for that matter) the 65-point seasons are few and far between it would seem he is worth taking a chance on Atkinson and his higher upside would be the prudent choice.