Flyers Trade Jake Voracek To Columbus For Cam Atkinson
For entirely different reasons, the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets are getting used to saying goodbye to core players. For Columbus, this is all but the end of their contending window after a franchise best run of four straight playoff appearances from 2017-2020, peaking in their first playoff series win in franchise history in 2019. But with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky leaving as UFAs after that 2019 run, Columbus lost too much firepower. They hung on for a while; but a disastrous 2021 season that featured two stars (Pierre-Luc Dubois and later, Seth Jones) request and receive trades out of Columbus broke the camel’s back. They also traded captain Nick Foligno to Toronto at the trade deadline. And this era officially ended when head coach John Tortorella was fired at season’s end.
Philadelphia’s 2021 season wasn’t as bad as Columbus’, but it was just as disappointing. After years of spinning the hamster wheel, the Flyers broke through the glass in 2019-20 with their best regular season in eight years and longest playoff run in ten. The good times were expected to keep rolling in 2021. Instead, the Flyers got steamrolled, falling from 6th in the NHL to 19th, missing the playoffs by a wide margin. And based on what’s happening this offseason, the tenth straight year where the Flyers alternated making and missing the playoffs truly feels like the last straw.
General manager Chuck Fletcher has been taking big swings all summer. He hit a home-run with the Ryan Ellis trade, dealing two of Philadelphia’s most promising young players but acquiring a legit top-pair defenseman. The Rasmus Ristolainen trade (and the Shayne Gostisbehere salary dump the day prior to clear the cap space) was a confounding gamble that saw the Flyers give up significant assets for a polarizing player that has the makeup of a great player but the statistical profile of a dud. Fletcher did say after the Ristolainen trade Philadelphia was probably done making moves for the next week. But anyone who’s been following the Flyers this offseason knows better than to believe that. Sure enough, less than 24 hours after delivering that message, Fletcher pulled the trigger on another massive move.
Yesterday’s Ristolainen trade put the Flyers back in a position where they needed to clear cap space. There simply wasn’t enough money to resign RFAs Travis Sanheim and Carter Hart after acquiring Ristolainen’s $5.4 million cap hit. Not to mention adding a backup goaltender, depth defenseman, and maybe a third-line center. Trading Voracek for Atkinson opens up $2.375 million in cap space, bringing the Flyers to about $11.6 million in cap space once accounting for someone like Cam York making the roster (per CapFriendly). That figure accounts for thirteen forwards, four defensemen, and zero goaltenders, by the way. It should be enough to take care of Hart and Sanheim and fill out the rest of their roster. Although the way this offseason has gone, another big move is never out of the question.
But let’s slow down and focus on this one. While the cap information is important, the Flyers aren’t acquiring Atkinson just to clear up space; they’re acquiring someone who they hope can be an impact offensive forward. For years and years and years, Flyers fans have been complaining about the team’s lack of a pure sniper. The goal-scoring efforts of James van Riemsdyk and Travis Konecny never seem to satiate the Philadelphia faithful. Thoughts of bringing in Vladimir Tarasenko were intriguing, but with Atkinson now in the fold, that seems unlikely.
The good news for those fans is that Atkinson has made a name for himself as a goal scorer. Taken 157th overall in the 2008 Draft by Columbus, Atkinson has scored at least at a 20-goal pace pro-rated over a full season since his draft-plus-two year (2009-10, when he was a sophomore at Boston College playing alongside Kevin Hayes). From 2016-2019, Atkinson had a legitimate case as one of the league’s best goal scorers. Atkinson’s 100 goals over those three seasons ranked 15th in the NHL. His 1.12 goals per 60 was T-13th in that span (JVR was T-5th at 1.20). And since breaking into the NHL full-time in 2013-14, Atkinson has averaged at least 200 shots on goal per 82 games every season. That profile is the definition of a sniper.
However, Atkinson’s scoring touch has faded over the last two seasons. Atkinson scored just 12 goals in 44 games in 2019-20 and 15 in 56 games in 2020-21. Both of those average out to about 22 goals over a full 82-game season. After posting an 11.2% shooting percentage from the start of his career in 2011 through 2019, Atkinson’s dropped to a 8.8% clip over the last two seasons. He’s still shooting the puck; Atkinson was on pace for 276 shots in 2019-20 and 231 in 2020-21. Though his 8.47 shots per 60 at 5v5 this year were a career low.
Atkinson also hasn’t also hasn’t had the benefit of being on a great power-play; since 2016-17, Columbus’ PP ranks 28th in the NHL at 17%. They were 27th last year at 15.4%, making Philadelphia’s unspectacular man-advantage (19.2%, T-17th) look tremendous by comparison. Atkinson has tallied just four PPGs in the last two years; he could easily eclipse that number months if not weeks into his Flyers career. And unlike most snipers, Atkinson isn’t a one-dimensional player; he’s a great penalty killer, which Fletcher specifically mentioned as part of the reason the Flyers traded for him. Atkinson also has 26 points in 35 career playoff games; very solid production that shows the 5’8” forward won’t be denied when it matters most.
That isn’t to say this is a risk free trade, of course. Atkinson’s contract has four years left on it, one more than Voracek’s. Atkinson also has a modified no-trade clause that allows Atkinson to submit a 10-team no-trade list should the Flyers ever seek to move him. His raw underlying numbers from 2021 look horrible. But they were above average relative to his teammates in a nightmare year for the Blue Jackets. His overall possession stats profile is good but not great; Atkinson’s Relative Corsi For% and Expected Goals For% has been positive in all but two of his NHL seasons (2016-17, 2019-20). He hovered between 49-53% in Corsi and 51-54% in Expected Goals over the last three seasons before the aforementioned possession nightmare that was the 2021 Columbus Blue Jackets.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out Atkinson’s goal total fell off at the same time Duchene, Panarin, and (later) Dubois left. It’s a logical reason for Atkinson’s decline and. But it could also just be a convenient excuse that’s less intimidating than the aging curve explaining the 32-year old’s decline. Getting the chance to play with a gifted playmaker like Claude Giroux could certainly provide at least a short-term boon, depending on how Alain Vigneault mixes his lines.
If you’re a die-heart, long-time Blue Jackets fan, you might already be familiar with Jakub Voracek. After all, Columbus took Voracek 7th overall in the 2007 Draft. After a 101-point season in the QMJHL in 2007-08, Voracek became an NHL regular in his draft-plus two season and was in the lineup for all four games of Columbus’ first playoff series in 2009. In three years with the Blue Jackets, Voracek scored 134 points in 242 games.
Trading away Voracek is a decision Columbus certainly regrets; not only did Voracek continue improving and become one of the league’s best playmakers in Philadelphia, the Blue Jackets also gave up the 8th overall pick in 2011, which the Flyers used to draft Sean Couturier, and a 2011 3rd that the Flyers found a productive NHLer in via current Nashville Predator Nick Cousins. In return, they only got a half-season out of Jeff Carter before he demanded a trade and was shipped to LA. It’s safe to say things didn’t work out for them.
As mentioned, the Blue Jackets are acquiring a gifted playmaker in Voracek. He should mesh perfectly with Finnish sniper Patrik Laine. At 5v5 and the power-play, Voracek is an incredibly gifted passer and outstanding at entering the offensive zone with control. Sometimes, Voracek pushes his high-end skill to the limit and tries a high-risk play that ends in disaster. But the good outweighs the bad. And while Columbus looks to be rebuilding, it’s worth mentioning just how good Voracek was in the Flyers’ first-round playoff series win over Montréal in 2020; he scored four goals and three assists in six games, including the only goal of Game 3. In a playoff run where so many of Philadelphia’s best players weren’t that, Voracek delivered the goods. He’ll easily go down as one of the most productive players in Flyers franchise history.
At his height, Voracek was an 80-point player with some of the best underlying numbers in the game. The Voracek Columbus is receiving is a 60-point player with decent possession numbers. He’s not a lazy player, like some people will tell you, but he’s also not the greatest defensively. Jake Voracek the person is incredibly entertaining; he’s an absolute beauty. Voracek is brash, not afraid to speak his mind, and (just a heads up) will block you on Twitter if you post the smallest slight against him (no @ necessary). He doesn’t Tweet that often, but when he does, it’s a gem. Case in point: his post after the trade was completed.
Voracek doesn’t fit the rebuilding angle the Blue Jackets are turning towards; he’s 32 and under contract for three more years with an $8.25 million AAV. But he’ll be a decent if overpaid stop gap for the next three years. Columbus could probably manage to flip him in the coming years with some retained salary. But I’d expect Brad Larsen to see what Voracek has left before that’s even a thought. As mentioned, the Blue Jackets need to find a way to make Patrik Laine happy; or else, they’ll risk losing yet another key talent. Getting to play with a gifted passer like Voracek could be a mutually beneficial relationship and get Laine back to his 40-50 goal ways.
It’s easy to see a way for either side to win or lose this trade. If Atkinson’s 30 goal days are behind him and the aging curve hits the 32-year old hard, the Flyers could be stuck with another bad contract that lasts one year longer than Voracek’s (Atkinson will be 36 when his deal expires). But his goal-scoring history and PK prowess are intriguing. And it’s not like Atkinson’s been a bad player in recent years. Find the right spot for him in the lineup, and it’s easy to picture Atkinson becoming the quality high-volume shooter fans have desired since the Flyers traded Carter for Voracek in 2011. And his quest to become a fan favorite is already off to an incredible start.
On the other hand, Voracek could easily remain productive in Columbus and either be a part of a fast turn-around or flipped for assets to further Columbus’ rebuild in the future. Or maybe Columbus’ nightmare 2021 season that dragged down Atkinson (and just about everyone else) is a sign of things to come, one that’s too powerful for Voracek to stop. Trading for Voracek doesn’t change where Columbus is heading. But it’s always good to have productive veterans that can show the youngsters the ropes. Anyone who follows the Flyers closely knows how important Voracek is in the Flyers’ locker room and leadership group.
This could be the last big move in what has been an eye-popping offseason in Philadelphia. Whether you agree with the moves or not, this is the biggest year-over-year change the Flyers have had since they acquired Voracek, Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn (plus two draft picks) from Columbus and LA for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in 2011. The short-term impact was good; but three of those players are gone and the Flyers have had very little success to show for their tenures. That’s not their fault; all four were very productive players for the Flyers. Philadelphia’s short-comings of the last decade have much more to do with failing to surround these players with talent than those players themselves.
If there’s one thing the Flyers haven’t been afraid to do this offseason, it’s going all out. Whether it’s trading significant futures to acquire a player, trading significant futures to dump a bad contract, or making a notable one-for-one trade, Chuck Fletcher is stopping at nothing in the pursuit of excellence, and, eventually, the Stanley Cup. That mindset is refreshing, exciting, and a bit terrifying after years of playing it safe and trusting a core that has been completely shaken up this summer. Like Atkinson, Fletcher is taking shot after shot right now. And if both hit their mark, maybe the Flyers can find the success they sought but never achieved while Voracek was at the height of his game and a face of the Flyers franchise.
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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted, unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick