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The NHL righted a wrong by naming Atkinson as Malkin’s all-star replacement

Cam Atkinson wasn’t the only option to replace the injured Evgeni Malkin at the All-Star Game, but the Blue Jackets winger was the best choice and deserving of the chance to take part.

The divisional format of the All-Star Game has done its part in rejuvenating what had become a dull weekend that saw players go through the motions at both the skills competition and the star-studded exhibition, but not all about the change has been grand. With the need for representation from each division, several players were glaring omissions when the weekend’s rosters were announced.

In the Central Division, Blackhawks winger Artemi Panarin was overlooked because Chicago’s core group consisting of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford all made the squad. Likewise, Max Pacioretty wasn’t able to join the Atlantic Division because Montreal was already represented by Carey Price and Shea Weber, and the Pacific’s goaltending situation was confusing with Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot not getting the nod despite being one of the better puckstoppers in the division.

But the omission of Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson was a tough one. In a star-studded Metropolitan Division that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares, it’s understandable why there was no room up front for Atkinson, especially not with Columbus already sending a pair of players, but it felt like this could have been his only shot at making the team and it came during a season when he was absolutely deserving of the experience.

So while no one’s happy to see Malkin fighting a lower-body injury that will keep him out through all-star weekend, it’s a relief that it’s Atkinson who is taking Malkin’s place at the game.

At the time he was left off the roster, back on Jan. 10, Atkinson was the third-highest scoring player in the Metropolitan. His 19 goals were second only to Crosby, his 39 points trailed Crosby and Malkin, he had netted nine power play tallies, two shorthanded goals and four times Atkinson had fired home the game-winner. He was one of the leading forces on a Blue Jackets team that was in the midst of what would become a 16-game win streak, and he’s continued to roll.

Now 47 games into the campaign, Atkinson has 24 goals and 46 points, behind only Crosby, Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Atkinson’s added another game-winner to his totals and he’s still skating big minutes on a Blue Jackets team that is almost inexplicably challenging for the top spot in the league’s toughest division. Atkinson wasn’t a shoo-in to replace Malkin, however, and there were other ways the league could have gone. 

Backstrom has been on fire of late and his dominance over the past month could have been enough to vault him over Atkinson. It also could have been reasoned that with three Blue Jackets already going — defenseman Seth Jones, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and coach John Tortorella — that Columbus didn’t need a fourth representative. Instead, the Flyers could have sent Claude Giroux or Jakub Voracek as an additional representative, Phil Kessel would have been a one-for-one trade off for his Penguins teammate missing the game and arguments could have been made for the Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello or Derek Stepan.

But that the league has gone ahead and sent Atkinson is about the best thing they could have done because he’s a unique player in a standout division. Every other Metropolitan all-star was either selected in the top two rounds of the draft or boasts an individual award. They’re stars, notable names and recognizable players. But Atkinson doesn’t fit that bill, and his climb to becoming an all-star has been gradual and impressive.

Atkinson, a sixth-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2008, had to work his way through two seasons splitting time between the AHL and NHL in order to find a full-time time fit in Columbus, and ever since he’s gotten the chance to be an every-game player, he’s made the most of it. He often goes unappreciated across the league, but Atkinson has been a 20-goal scorer in each of the past three seasons and his goal total has risen each successive campaign. 

He scored 21 in 2013-14, 22 in 2014-15, followed that with a 27-goal year in 2015-16 and this season Atkinson is on pace to smash through the 30-goal plateau and potentially crack 40 goals by the time the season ends. Few outside of Columbus think of him as a top scorer, but since his first full season in the league, there are only 23 players who have scored more goals than Atkinson’s 94. His goal-scoring numbers are in league with the likes of Kyle Okposo, Nikita Kucherov, Sean Monahan and Jonathan Toews. Atkinson’s overall point total isn’t all that bad, either. At 179 points, he ranks 79th in scoring over the past three-plus seasons.

There’s more to it than Atkinson being a scorer, though. When one pictures the Blue Jackets, the first players who come to mind are often Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad, Jones and Bobrovsky. But Atkinson is as much a heart-and-soul player as anyone else on the roster. Since he became a full-timer in Columbus, only Foligno and Boone Jenner have blocked more shots, only Matt Calvert, Brandon Dubinsky and now-Oiler Mark Letestu have spent more time on the penalty kill and, of course, no player has more shorthanded tallies.

Atkinson isn’t the glitz and glamour type of player and he’s far from the traditional star. He wasn’t drafted high, hasn’t taken home any hardware and he’s not playing in a major market. But Atkinson has earned his way to the All-Star Game and into the conversation as one of better wingers in the league the hard way, and there couldn’t have been a better choice to replace Malkin this coming weekend.

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