Nov 14, 2019

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

One shift at a time; one game at a time.

That’s how Josh Atkinson, one of the surprises in the early days of the Iowa Wild’s 2019-20 season, intends to approach the second half of his 25-game professional tryout contract.

“I just wanted to come and just do my best every day to try to give myself a chance to make the team,” the 27-year-old Spruce Grove, AB native said. “I’m just focused on one day at a time.”

So far, there have been more good days than bad as Atkinson, paired with veteran defenseman Hunter Warner through 14 games, has adjusted well to the Wild’s system.

“It’s kind of rare, but from the first shift, we just clicked,” Warner said. “It’s hard to learn the various parts of the defense, but we’ve developed a real chemistry and understanding of each other’s game.”

Atkinson is another good-sized defenseman with speed and an ability to attack the net, ideal for the Wild’s defensive systems. Playing in the ECHL for Atlanta, Atkinson generated 50 points during the 2016-17 season with 10 goals. This season, he’s recorded one assist and a minus-1 rating.

“He's got good feet and that allows him to play in the opponent’s face,” Head Coach Tim Army said. “He's very mobile and he gets around the rink really well. And he closes really well on people and competes really hard.”

The veteran coach said the Wild’s interest in Atkinson began last season when he signed a contract with the ECHL’s Allen Americans. He posted a respectable 26 points (5g, 21a) in 52 games, but couldn’t find a spot with Iowa late in the season.

“We already had Nate Prosser who came down and several other players filling the roster,” Army recalled. “We had been watching ‘Atty’ for a while and we liked what we saw, but we had a full roster.”

Ironically, Atkinson would sign a PTO with the Chicago Wolves late in the season and played in two games during the regular season and added one playoff game against Grand Rapids. The Wolves would defeat Iowa in the second round of the playoffs and then challenged Charlotte for the Calder Cup as the Western Conference champions. All that time, Atkinson was skating as part of the Wolves’ reserve group.

“I joined them with a couple games left and played one game there,” Atkinson said. “I played the game in the first round and then was there just practicing, helping out to all the way to the Final.”

After the season, Atkinson waited to find out where he would play the next season.

“I just was waiting around all summer to see what might happen with the Wolves,” Atkinson said.

Then, Atkinson learned the Wild had interest in him and was willing to bring him to the Minnesota Wild camp with a chance of play for Iowa or again in Allen.

“Coach was interested to have me come to camp so I thought that'd be a great opportunity just to be there,” he said.

Army said Atkinson had a good camp and was impressive in Iowa’s two preseason games, but whether he would make the Iowa roster was still up in the air.

“He played well in the camps and while we thought we already had five spots on the roster determined, things changed pretty quickly and we learned we needed more depth,” Army said.

Greg Pateryn’s injury prompted Minnesota to keep Carson Soucy with the NHL club. That created an open spot in the top six d-men pairings and an additional spot on the roster for an extra defenseman.

“We understood we needed depth this season,” Army said. “We needed some depth so he hadn't signed anything yet. It has turned out pretty well so far.”

Colton Beck, who played two seasons with Atkinson at Alaska-Fairbanks, understands the kind of pressure his teammate is going through on a tryout contract. Beck signed one with the Wild in 2015 and has been with the team ever since.

“You just got to take advantage of the opportunity,” Beck said. “I mean, ultimately, this is where he wants to be and to keep growing in the game. He's played really well so far.”

“The opportunity can be stressful at times," Beck added. "But you just got to look at it as an opportunity and you're finally where you want to be now."

Army said Atkinson has made progress in his development with the Wild by learning when to go on the attack and when to maintain his defensive position on the blueline.

“He's very, very confident and his biggest thing is to have a little balance to his game. It's what we work with him on it every day,” Army said. “He gets a little bit antsy, he gets exposed a little bit.”

Atkinson acknowledged his continues to learn how to approach his game.

“You've got to learn to play defense at the pro level,” Atkinson said. “They play a less risky game. I've just tried to focus on that side of the game and just letting the offense come to me and not getting ahead of the play.”

Warner said he is confident his linemate is making the adjustments necessary to stick.

“It’s tough to be in his position, but if anyone can do it, it’s Josh,” Warner said. “He's got an incredibly positive mindset and loves to work hard. Like anything you do in life one day at a time, you have a good day. He steps up that ladder every day.”

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