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The Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers pulled off trade last summer that caught the hockey world by surprise, including both players involved in it.
Cam Atkinson was stunned to be dealt by the Blue Jackets, with whom he’d played his entire NHL career. Jakub Voracek sensed a trade was coming, after a falling out with former Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, but couldn’t believe his next stop was right back in Columbus, where he’d started his NHL career.
Neither of the veteran forwards understood the reasons for it at first, but the impetus quickly became clear. It was a “hockey trade” for both sides, which is the term used by NHL executives to describe a deal that provides something each team lacks on the ice.
Philadelphia wanted a goal-scoring forward; Columbus lacked an elite passer to play with Patrik Laine, and the trade took care of each problem. Six months later, the Blue Jackets and Flyers will face each other Thursday in Philadelphia for the first time since the deal was completed.
Both have dropped out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, but they’re separated by just one point in the Metropolitan Division and have each gotten what they’d sought with the move.
As the season’s mid-point nears, here’s a look at how things are going for each side.
Cam Atkinson thriving with Philadelphia Flyers
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher wanted to add a goal-scorer and found one in Atkinson, who’s leading the team with 15 goals and added his 14th assist in a shootout loss Tuesday to lift his scoring total to 29 points. The 32-year old winger is playing on the top line, skating at right wing next to center Claude Giroux and seeing minutes on both special-teams units for coach Mike Yeo, who took over as coach after Vigneault was fired.
Atkinson has 11 even-strength goals and two power-play goals. He has also scored a pair of goals while shorthanded, something he did 16 times in 10 seasons with the Blue Jackets, including four times last year.
So, things are going well for Atkinson, outside of his team’s plight as a non-contender 39 games into a season in which the Flyers were supposed to contend. He’s scoring a pace that would have him finish with 32 goals and over a full 82-game season and top 60 points for just the third time in his career.
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The Flyers certainly can’t complain about what they’ve gotten out of the trade, but they’re also out of the playoff hunt and pressed against the league’s salary-cap ceiling of $81.5 million with defenseman Ryan Ellis’ $6.25 million salary providing cap relief while he’s on long-term injured reserve.
Atkinson has three years left on his contract, which carries a cap number of $5.875 million and his no-trade clause is limited to 10 teams. Could he be on the move again around the March Mar. 21 trade deadline?
Jakub Voracek fitting in nicely with retooling Blue Jackets
Voracek spent his sixth day on the COVID-19 protocols list Wednesday, so his availability against the Flyers is questionable. Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said he’s working under the assumption that Voracek won’t play, which would be the third straight game without his skill set on one of the top two lines and the No. 1 power-play unit.
Following the trade, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters that he wanted to add Voracek’s elite passing ability to the lineup, primarily as a way to help Laine get back to scoring goals the way he did as a Winnipeg Jet.
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Laine’s struggles following a trade last season were tough to watch and it became clear the Blue Jackets struggled to get him the puck in positions where he’d been used to scoring goals from – specifically his “office” in the left faceoff circle.
Enter Voracek, a deft puck-distributor from the right wing for most of his 14-year NHL career, starting with a 9-29-38 scoring line for the Jackets in 2008-09 as a rookie. Voracek has lived up to his billing as an elite passer during his second stint in Columbus, racking up 25 points on just one goal and 24 assists in 34 games prior to testing positive last week for COVID-19.
Twenty of those assists were primaries and only a handful led to goals by Laine, who missed two months with an oblique strain. During Laine’s absence, Voracek merely set up other teammates with scoring chances, from rookie forwards Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov to captain Boone Jenner, who leads the team with 15 goals.
Voracek, who recently played his 1,000th career game, will re-pair with Laine once he’s off the protocols list and will have 40-plus games left to keep dishing out assists. He was also starting to shoot the puck more before his COVID diagnosis and probably won’t finish the season with just one goal to his credit.
Voracek doesn’t have a no-trade clause but has two years left on a contract that carries an $8.25 million cap charge. It would be a little surprising if Voracek gets moved at the deadline this season.
That’s not to say it won’t happen, but Voracek has proven himself to be valuable for the retooling Blue Jackets, who still need his passing ability to boost a collection of shoot-first teammates.
NHL announces new schedule
The NHL has released a revised schedule that allows teams to make good on games that have been postponed by COVID-19. For the Blue Jackets that means date changes for ten games — seven which were pushed back due to the omicron outbreak and three future faceoffs that needed to be shifted due to new travel demands.
The first of the rescheduled contests will be played Feb. 8 when Columbus visits the Washington Capitals, a game that was originally scheduled for April 28.
The revisions affect two postponed home games. A Dec. 23 faceoff against the Buffalo Sabres will instead be a Feb. 20 puck drop, and rather than meeting on Dec. 27, the Blue Jackets will now host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Voracek, Atkinson trade working out for Blue Jackets and Flyers