Flyers analysis

Signs of change? Atkinson has ‘a lot of juice left' for ‘the right situation'

The Flyers' veteran winger has one more year left on his contract at a $5.875 million cap hit

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Perhaps Cam Atkinson sees the writing on the wall, just like Kevin Hayes did at this time last April.

One couldn't help but think of Hayes as Atkinson sat at the same press conference table that his good friend and former teammate did a year ago, feeling frustrated and wondering if this was it in Philadelphia.

On Wednesday morning, Atkinson had just finished a challenging 2023-24 season in which his role and production evaporated on a younger team. This came after the 34-year-old winger missed a full season because of a neck injury and after the Flyers publicly embraced a rebuild in the summer.

How does Atkinson feel about where he stands in the team's future?

"That's a good question," he said. "I have one more year on my contract. I know the player I am and I'll never lose sight in how I am and what has made me the player I am today and what has gotten me to this level. I still feel like I have a lot of juice left in the tank for the right situation. I think that question is above my pay grade. Control what I can control."

Atkinson started the season with eight goals and 12 points in his first 15 games. But he saw a goal-scoring slump hit 26 games in January and was benched at one point. After heating up with a six-game point streak (five goals, five assists) later that month, he went without a point over his final 23 games of the season.

The veteran goal scorer dealt with healthy scratches and played 10:50 minutes per game in his last 13 games. In the Flyers' meaningful regular-season finale Tuesday night, a 2-1 loss to the Capitals, Atkinson was on the ice for only 4:41 minutes as John Tortorella shortened the bench considerably.

For Atkinson, playing sparingly was a major adjustment. He's a player with a 41-goal season on his résumé from 2018-19 with the Blue Jackets and his 249 career NHL goals are more than any other Flyer has on the roster. Just a couple of seasons ago, he was the Bobby Clarke Trophy winner for team MVP.

He finished this season with 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) and a minus-22 rating in 70 games.

"All 13 years I've been a go-to guy and contribute offensively and been put in situations to have success," Atkinson said. "So when you go from that to kind of in and out of the lineup and when I'm in the lineup, on the fourth line with limited minutes, there's only so much you can do. So I think when I was out there, I tried my hardest to just make some sort of impact. I've never experienced that. Going from playing one to three shifts a period, it's hard.

"But I thought being a good teammate and control what I can control. I'll never go down that negative road. I want all my teammates to succeed and do well. We all want to be difference-makers. When your role does change, you have to find ways to contribute any way you can. Unfortunately it wasn't really on the scoresheet, but I thought, overall, I handled it pretty well."

Tortorella knows Atkinson well, having coached him for parts of six seasons in Columbus. Atkinson vouched for Tortorella when the Flyers were conducting their head coaching search after the 2021-22 season.

"I know him well enough, he's going to try to figure this out," Tortorella said after demoting Atkinson to the fourth line during a game in December. "And he knows me well enough that it's not forever; I've been very patient."

The Flyers have a lot of youth at Atkinson's right wing position with Owen Tippett, Tyson Foerster, Bobby Brink and Samu Tuomaala knocking on the door. Next season, Atkinson will be in the final year of a seven-year, $41.125 million contract ($5.875 million cap hit) that he originally signed with the Blue Jackets.

"Torts and I definitely have a unique relationship," Atkinson said. "I think all the conversations we've had this year together, I never want one or two things to hinder our relationship. Those are the conversations we've had. He was very honest at the beginning of the season and so was management, the organization to the fans, just that we're going younger and those guys are going to get more of an opportunity. So I get it. Torts and I, we're going to agree to disagree on a lot of things. It is what it is at this point."

If the Flyers and Atkinson decide it's best to part ways this offseason, general manager Danny Briere could explore the trade market or the buyout route. Buying out the final year of Atkinson's contract would allow him to sign elsewhere, possibly with a team looking for some pedigree and scoring depth. He'd be a fit in any locker room.

Per's buyout calculator, if the Flyers were to buy out Atkinson's final year, his cap hit would be $2.358 million next season and $1.758 million the following season. So for next season, they would save $3.5 million on his original cap hit.

Atkinson was an undersized sixth-round draft pick in 2008 who has gone on to play 770 games. He won't be lacking motivation heading into the offseason.

"I don't care what anyone says, I've just got to believe in myself like I always have and prove everyone wrong like I always have my whole life and just go from there," Atkinson said. "I know this is a very important summer for me, getting back to the player I want to be and I know I can be. That's all I'm going to focus on."

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