The smallest of the Springfield Falcons, the 5-foot-8 winger is recognizable as the blur regularly weaving through defensemen twice his size and beating out goaltenders with twice his experience.
At 22 years old, the Columbus Blue Jackets prospect is ranked eighth among AHL rookies in scoring with nine goals and six assists for 15 points in his 18 games so far this season.
Though some would suggest his size could be a hindrance in his budding professional career, Atkinson disagrees.
“I see it as a positive and use it to my advantage, especially with the big guys,” he said. “I can get lower and I have good balance, so it’s a little harder for them to try to knock me off the puck.
“I have to try and work on it every day.”
So far his work has paid off and the NHL has taken notice. Atkinson made his NHL debut with Columbus on Oct. 7, and three days later he notched his first NHL goal – a wrister from the slot and through the five-hole of the Vancouver Canucks’ Cory Schneider.
“It was obviously a dream come true to score your first NHL goal and I was lucky enough to get it on Cory Schneider who’s a [Boston College] guy,” said Atkinson, also a BC product.
“He kind of rubbed it in my face after, but it was exciting,” he added with a smile.
Atkinson spent three years at Boston College, winning the NCAA Division I National Championship in 2010. That season he lead the nation in goals with 30 goals, including two in the national championship game.
After signing a two-year contract with Columbus in March 2011, Atkinson came to Springfield where he has been working to perfect his game ever since.
“You obviously have to be a two-way player in this league,” he said of the AHL. “You can kind of get away with it in college a little bit, but you can’t cheat the game at all (here), you learn that pretty quickly.
“If you make a mistake, the other team’s going to capitalize on it.”
The Greenwich, Conn., native said he enjoys being able to play so close to home. His family and friends are regular guests at Springfield’s MassMutual Center.
“It’s a huge benefit to have your family at mostly every game,” he said. “If you’re having a bad day, it’s nice for them to just come up and go out to lunch with them and just catch up. You don’t realize how fortunate you are, especially when there are some guys who are from pretty far away. It’s just nice to have your family.”
As he approaches the one-year mark of his professional career, Atkinson said he never tires of playing both alongside and against his childhood heroes.
“It’s pretty exciting just to step on the ice with players you’ve watched for so long and people you’ve looked up to, and some of your role models you’ve had growing up that you try to emulate,” he said.
There hasn’t been a playoff team in Springfield since 2003, but with his 10-10-0-0 Falcons currently five points out of first place in the AHL’s Northeast Division, Atkinson looks toward the future with unwavering determination and cautious optimism.
“We definitely want to get some more wins and hopefully get a winning streak going,” he said. “We want to be a playoff team and we should be. We have some pretty good talent in the locker room.”
Atkinson isn’t the only Falcon to get the call to Columbus this season. John Moore, David Savard, Matt Calvert, Maksim Mayorov, Alexandre Giroux, Cody Bass and Allen York have all brought their game from Springfield to the show in the first two months of the season.
The Falcons will face off against the Worcester Sharks on Friday night, the beginning of a three-games-in-three-nights weekend as they look for a jumpstart going into December.
As for Atkinson, his individual goal is simple.
“In the future, I want to just stick to my game and be an impact player wherever I am.”