Then and Now: R.J. Umberger

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R.J. Umberger may have been born in Pittsburgh, but some of his best memories so far in the NHL have come with the franchise located on the other side of the state. Although his first NHL game came with the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2005-06 season, Umberger was a member of two other NHL organizations before he made his way to Philly.

The skater was picked 16th overall in the 2001 NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks, as he was the first American forward to be selected. Mike Komisarek was the first American picked by the Montreal Canadiens with the seventh-overall pick.

After he was selected by the Canucks, Umberger took part in his second and third seasons playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 campaigns. In his final year as a Buckeye, Umberger served as an alternate captain for the squad and produced 53 points in 43 games.

Umberger didn’t take part in a single game during the next hockey season, but he was part of a trade that sent him to the New York Rangers organization. Paired with Martin Grenier, another former Flyer, Umberger was dealt to the Blueshirts in exchange for Martin Rucinsky.

A little over three months later (June, 2004) the Flyers signed Umberger as a free agent.

In his first campaign with Philly’s franchise, Umberger suited up in 80 regular-season games for the Philadelphia Phantoms and participated in all 21 postseason games the Phantoms needed to win the 2005 Calder Cup. After he had 21 goals and 44 assists during the regular season, Umberger pitched in three goals and 10 helpers during the team’s title run.

The season after the lockout saw the Pittsburgh native split time between the Phantoms and the Flyers, as the forward spent most of his time in the NHL.

Umberger had 10 points in eight games with the Phantoms in 2005-2006, while he provided 20 goals and 18 assists in his first 73 games in the NHL. Unfortunately for “Umby,” his first memorable moment in the postseason was a hit that many hockey fans will remember forever.

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Buffalo Sabres needed two overtimes before, ironically, Danny Briere beat Robert Esche to give Buffalo the series lead. A little over 11 minutes into the first extra frame, a frantic play in the Flyers’ crease nearly resulted in a game-winner for the Sabres before the Orange and Black quickly gained possession of the puck and attempted to exit the zone. Niko Dimitrakos threw a pass to Umberger, who was in open ice at the Flyers’ blue line when Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell landed a monstrous. but legal, body check on the forward.

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Umberger’s dazed look after the collision led many to believe he’d be out for a lengthy amount of time, but the forward only missed Game 2 due to the check.

The forward proceeded to pot his first NHL playoff goal in the Flyers’ 5-4 Game 4 victory, as he scored the team’s fourth goal of the night.

Umberger’s production went down during the Flyers’ poor season of 2006-07, as he produced 10 less points than he did the previous year despite the fact he played in eight more games. To make matters worse, Umberger also finished minus-32, his worst plus-minus for any single season in his hockey career to date.

The forward rebounded the following season, much like the Flyers franchise as a whole, as Philly returned to the playoffs as a six seed to take on the Washington Capitals.

In a series that was decided with Joffrey Lupul’s tally in overtime of Game 7, the Flyers edged the Caps 4-3 to advance. Umberger had one goal and one assist in the series, but his one score was a game-winner, as his tally 5:53 into the first period of Game 2 was all Martin Biron needed for a 24-save shutout and a 2-0 Flyers win on the road.

Philly then advanced to the conference semifinals to take on the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens, a team the Flyers were 0-4-0 against during the regular season. Umberger, who only had two assists against the Habs in the four losses that year, had a playoff series to remember.

Although the Flyers dropped Game 1 by a 4-3 score in overtime in Montreal, Umberger recorded a goal.

Philly rebounded in Game 2 for a 4-2 win, where Umberger posted a two-goal performance. With the series tied at one, Umberger had three of the team’s seven goals through the first pair of contests.

Despite a Derian Hatcher boarding major that handed the Canadiens a pair of power-play goals in the final period, the Flyers won Game 3 by a score of 3-2 with Umberger’s lone goal in the contest serving as the game winner.

Game 4 saw more offensive contributions from Umberger, as he potted the first and last goals of the Flyers’ 4-2 victory before the clubs returned to Montreal for Game 5.

For the first time in the series, the Canadiens held a lead in regulation over the Flyers. It came by a count of 3-1 near the halfway point of the tilt. Thanks to an assist on a goal that was credited to Mike Richards and a goal he scored due to hustle and hard work (3:26 mark), Umberger was able to help the Flyers tie the game at 3-3 with 4:16 left in the second period. Add in the fact Umberger scored Philly’s first goal (:54 mark) in the eventual 6-4 series-clinching decision, the forward produced eight goals and an assist in the five-game series.

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The forward didn’t stop there despite the fact Philly was eliminated in the following round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. Umberger had one goal and three assists in the series that ultimately ended the Flyers’ run one round short of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

This marked the end of Umberger’s time in Philly, as the forward was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the summer of 2008 as the first salary-cap casualty of Paul Holmgren’s tenure as GM.

The Blue Jackets received Umberger and a fourth-round pick in the draft, with which they selected defenseman Drew Olson, who just made his AHL debut earlier this season. In return, the Flyers received a first-round pick and a third-round pick from the Blue Jackets. Philly picked defenseman Luca Sbisa in the first round and Marc-Andre Bourdon in the third round.

Since he was set to be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2008, Columbus signed Umberger to a four-year deal worth $15 million.

In his first season with the Blue Jackets, Umberger helped the franchise to their first and only trip to the postseason to date, as Columbus finished the regular season as the seven seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, they were embarrassed by the Detroit Red Wings, as the two seed held Columbus to just two goals in the first three games of an eventual sweep. Umberger did well in the series, however, as he produced three of the team’s seven goals in the series.

Since Columbus has only had one trip to the postseason and Umberger led the team in goals for their brief four-game tenure, Umberger is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ all-time postseason goal leader.

The 2009-10 season saw Umberger set his season-high for points in a single pro season with 55 in 82 games, as he finished fourth on the team in scoring. Jakub Voracek finished fifth on the Blue Jackets’ in terms of points that season with 50. Umberger also finished fourth on the team with 23 goals and fifth on the team with 32 assists, as Columbus finished 14th in the Western Conference and 27th overall with a record of 32-35-15.

It was the same story in 2010-11, as Umberger produced the same number of assists in the same number of games, while he finished with two more goals than the previous year to set his career-high for points in a single season to 57. He finished second on the team in points, as Rick Nash was first with 66 despite only playing in 75 games. With their record improving to 34-35-13, the Blue Jackets finished only one spot higher in the West.

Last season was a year of negatives for Umberger, as he finished with 20 goals and 20 assists in 77 games. A concussion sustained in the middle of January ended his consecutive-game streak with the Blue Jackets at 288, as he missed five games. His 40 points was also his lowest point total since his second season with the Flyers.

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To add insult to injury, the Blue Jackets finished dead last in the NHL, but failed to earn the first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. The Edmonton Oilers, who finished with nine more points than the Blue Jackets, once again picked first.

As for this year, Umberger served as a volunteer assistant coach at Ohio State University before the lockout-shortened season began in January. The forward also signed a five-year extension with the Blue Jackets through the 2016-17 season that will pay him a total of $23 million.

With the pieces they added from the Nash deal over the summer and another blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers at this year’s trade deadline, the Blue Jackets nearly made the postseason for a second time in their organization’s history.

Columbus picked up the same amount of points as the Minnesota Wild, but the Wild had more victories. The Blue Jackets also had the same record as the New York Islanders, who made it to the postseason as an eight seed in the Eastern Conference.