|R.J. Umberger will be out to prove that his brilliant postseason last year was no fluke while aiming to help lead his new club, the Columbus Blue Jackets into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Umberger was a huge surprise during the Philadelphia Flyers' remarkable run to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, finishing second on the team with 15 points in 17 playoff games. His team-leading 10 goals helped Philadelphia advance to the conference finals for the first time in three seasons.
"I feel I elevated my game throughout the course of the entire season and, then, at playoff time, everything was just right and began clicking," Umberger told NHL.com. "I'm just going to try and carry that momentum over to Columbus and for the rest of my career. I think (the 2007-08 totals) are just a part of what I'm going to grow into over the next few years and I'm confident I'll become a better player."
The Blue Jackets certainly hope so. At the 2008 Entry Draft last month, General Manager Scott Howson traded his second first-round pick (defenseman Luca Sbisa) to Philadelphia in exchange for Umberger. The Jackets also picked up Philadelphia's fourth-round pick (defenseman Drew Olson) and gave up its third-rounder (defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon).
In Columbus, Umberger will be reunited with a familiar face. Coach Ken Hitchcock, who is entering his third season behind the bench, was coaching Philadelphia during Umberger's rookie campaign in 2005-06.
"It'll be fun," Umberger admitted. "Hitch is one of the best coaches in the League and he likes to push his players pretty good. I'm looking at it as a chance to better my career. I'm excited that Hitch is excited to have me there, so I feel it will be a good situation."
Umberger admitted surprise on hearing the news of trade on draft day, but realized a move was eminent.
"It's always a shock when a trade occurs and I knew there were problems with the salary cap situation in Philly, so something had to happen," Umberger said. "My family was pretty excited because they realize Columbus is actually two hours closer to Pittsburgh. So they'll have an opportunity to get to home games more often. I think the biggest adjustment for me will be the travel since it was pretty easy in Philly on the East Coast. I'll have to get used to going out west a lot more, so that'll be the biggest challenge for me, being physically and mentally prepared."
Umberger, 26, finished sixth on the team in scoring last season with 50 points (13 goals, 37 assists) in 74 games, establishing career highs in assists and points while playing every forward position on all four lines with the team. He also amassed 64 hits, 59 blocks and ranked fourth on team with 40 takeaways. In 228 games spanning three NHL seasons with the Flyers, he's posted 49 goals, 67 assists and 116 points.
"There's definitely some upside in Columbus because the organization has made a lot of good acquisitions the past few weeks and is committed to winning and getting into the playoffs," Umberger said. "I'm excited to be a part of that."
Howson is also looking forward to having Umberger in the offensive mix.
"He's a competitive, versatile player, who we believe is still growing," Howson said. "He's a 50-point player, so we're hoping he can provide even more offense. We didn't have a lot of players on our roster with 50 points, so he'll certainly add more scoring. He can play center or wing, which was a bonus."
If nothing else, the addition of Umberger will provide some needed offensive support. The Blue Jackets had only two 50-point producers last season in wingers Rick Nash (69 points) and the since traded Nikolai Zherdev (61 points). Columbus, which hasn't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in its eight seasons, ranked 29th in the League with a 2.32 goals-per game average and 26th with a 14.9 percent power-play efficiency last season.
"It doesn't really matter to me whether I'm wing or center, but, in the long run, I see myself playing center," Umberger said. "That's where I've been my entire career, so I'm excited to get the chance to play there, but I'm also capable of playing both wings with the left being a little easier.
"If given an opportunity to play with (Rick) Nash, that'll be something," he confessed. "He's a great player and, hopefully, we'll be able to jell together quickly."
Umberger (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) played three seasons at Ohio State University from 2000-03, scoring 58 goals, 71 assists and 129 points in 112 games. As a freshman in 2000-01, he scored 37 points in 32 games and was named the CCHA Rookie of the Year. The following season, he led the Buckeyes in goals (18), assists (21) and points (39) in 37 games and in 2002-03, posted career highs with 26 goals, 27 assists and 53 points in 43 games to earn CCHA First All-Star Team and NCAA West Second All-American Team honors. The former first-round pick (16th overall) of the Vancouver Canucks in 2001 was signed by the Flyers as a free agent June 16, 2004.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.