Monday, June 23, 2014

Umberger returns to Philadelphia at the price of Hartnell

What is it about June 23? 

A player who never should have had to leave the franchise, one whose memorable playoff round against the Montreal Canadiens six years ago appeared to have cemented his place as a regular, has been re-acquired.

In a Monday bombshell revealed at high noon, the Flyers announced that R.J. Umberger was brought back from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Scott Hartnell. A fourth-round pick in the draft next year was also picked up.

It's the fifth major deal the franchise has made in the last three years on this specific date. Three years ago, Paul Holmgren sent Mike Richards to the Kings for Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, shipped Jeff Carter to Columbus for Jake Voracek and the draft picks which led to Sean Couturier and Nick Cousins, then signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a $51 million contract. Two years back, it was Luke Schenn from Toronto for James van Riemsdyk. And now this.

"R.J. is a versatile guy who can play all positions," Flyers head coach Craig Berube said in a press release issued shortly after the announcement. "He's a good penalty killer who skates well. He's a veteran who has been around a long time and knows how to play the game properly. He'll be used in a lot of different areas.I think with our team it is nice to have a real versatile guy like him."

A simple crunching of the numbers reveals the up-side to the transaction: Hartnell had five years remaining and $23.75 million cap hit on a lengthy contract extension signed in 2012, while Umberger only has three years and $13.8 million left on his current deal. Cap relief in the short term doesn't look satisfying, but if Ron Hextall is looking to the future and excising contracts instead of adding on, that's a significant upgrade and cause for elation.

"Cap flexibility moving forward was part of the thought process here and that is attractive to us. Three years down the road and looking ahead, we got guys who will be up," Hextall stated."When you look at a move, you look at a lot of things...tomorrow, a year, two years, three years, four years.

It's also key to note that Hartnell had a no-movement clause built into his latest contract, so whatever spurred the move might have been tipped behind closed doors between player and management. Hextall later revealed that the club came to Hartnell with the trade last week, and that the latter took some time to digest the ramifications. He also admitted it's a lateral move from a player standpoint.

The 32-year-old Hartnell leaves behind seven seasons, 157 goals, 326 points and 908 penalty minutes in 517 regular-season games, then 75 playoff appearances during which he totaled 16 scores and 25 helpers. Despite first-line minutes, he was never able to capture the magic of a career-best 37 goals, aided by the passing of Claude Giroux, in the 2011-12 campaign.

Hartnell's speed and discipline was also a concern over the last two seasons, something which precipitated a drop-off in his minutes. Umberger saw a dip in his playing time under Todd Richards.

"The number one thing is that we needed to get quicker up front," added Hextall.

Umberger, also 32, picked up 18 goals and 16 assists in 74 games with the Jackets last season. He had connected for 13 goals and 37 assists over 74 games for the Flyers in 2007-08, before being a salary-cap casualty roughly one month after the Flyers' season ended against the Penguins in the East Finals. He's played the last six seasons in Ohio's capital and took part in Columbus' only two playoff trips in that span.

The native of the Pittsburgh area had participated in three full NHL seasons, before his coming-out party in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the top-seeded Habs. In that five-game triumph, Umberger netted eight of his 10 goals that postseason, doing more than the celebrated Danny Briere to help the Orange and Black pull off the series upset.

"I guess no matter where I was going, it was going to be a surprise. But I wasn't expecting it to happen this morning. It was apparent that the team wanted to play the younger guys more. We've had over the last couple years some great young talent, and they deserve to play. Plus, there are some guys waiting to come up next year, so it's totally understandable," Umberger said on a conference call with local press. "It was time to move on to somewhere else and finish my career."

As for immediate gains, it does open up the possibility of either a trade or signing in the near future for the open winger spot on the presumed first-line Giroux-Jake Voracek pairing.  There's also little doubt that Umberger isn't a replacement on the top line for Hartnell. Rumors and internet speculation just after season's end has pinned Winnipeg's Evander Kane as a possibility to fill that slot up front.

In addition, the solution to the Vinny Lecavalier question is still forthcoming, with speculation abounding that his lack of cohesion in Berube's system mandates a move. There are also rumors of an ancillary deal between the Flyers and Edmonton Oilers -- but nothing of more substance than had been bandied about during the second half of the regular season.

If you recall, on June 23, 2011, those of us in the business of news gathering had to track down unsubstantiated rumors of a Brayden Coburn contract extension and the acquisition of the rights to free-agent forward Michal Handzus -- both of which wound up being dead ends. 

Hartnell moves on having accumulated six hat tricks during his time in Philadelphia, the most for a departing player since Eric Lindros (2000) and John LeClair (2004) both left the franchise with 12 trifectas. 

Umberger was a member of the John Stevens coached 2005 Calder Cup winning Philadelphia Phantoms, and earned a promotion to the big club the following season.

"It's never easy to make a trade. And it's never easy to make a trade with a guy who's been a really good Flyer," Hextall added. "If you look at what Scott Hartnell has done for the franchise, on the ice and off the ice, it's been a lot. So part of that, we'll all miss Scott and his personality."

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