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Feeling at Home ... Again

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

Big changes aren't always easy. R.J. Umberger has found that out in his second go in the city of Columbus.

Whether it's getting acclimated to a new dressing room or trying to find the right fit playing wing or center, the 26-year-old Pittsburgh native admits he had a harder time than he anticipated making the move to his second NHL team.

"It was my first time leaving a team so it's hard to actually start somewhere new," Umberger says of the deal that brought him to the Blue Jackets after three years with the Philadelphia Flyers. "I'm happy now and things are going in the right direction. The team starting to play well on the ice is a good sign. It makes it a lot more fun.

"And when you're able to go out there and chip in and help the team and see some rewards, it makes the transition a lot easier."

But you know what helps? Goals.

And Umberger's been scoring lots of them lately. After a relatively slow statistical start, Umberger pumped in all seven of his goals in a seven-game stretch to spark both the Jackets and himself.

The goals have been a talking point around Columbus but Manny Malhotra says his teammate has a lot more to offer.

"There are times in the game when he's not scoring, he's working for pucks and he's making hits." - Manny Malhotra on R.J. Umberger

"He's physical, strong all over the ice," says Malhotra. "There are times in the game when he's not scoring, he's working for pucks and he's making hits.

"That raises the intensity of the team and the emotion level of the guys."

It's the same in the dressing room, where the soft-spoken Umberger is very much one of the guys.

"He's just like everybody else, he likes to talk about all the random nonsense that we tend to talk about in here," says Malhotra. "It's a difficult transition for anybody to come into a new dressing room with new guys. But that transition period is over.

"He's right at home now."

Umberger did have one big advantage coming to Columbus – he knew the city well from his college days at Ohio State. He played three years with the Buckeyes and wrapped up his collegiate career with an impressive 26 goals and 27 assists in 43 games during the 2002-03 season.

Umberger says it was a memorable experience being part of a university that has so much pride.

"I became a Buckeye the first day I walked in," he says, recalling his time with former players like fellow NHLers Dave Steckel and Ryan Kesler. "I loved it. I still do."

It was after his OSU days that Umberger's career took a strange turn. He was drafted 16th overall in 2001 by the Vancouver Canucks but he was unable to come to an agreement on a contract with the organization and their former GM Brian Burke. The only way Umberger could obtain free agent status was to sit out the entire 2003-04 season so he spent some of his year training with the US National Development Program and much of it working out on his own with his cousin Scott.

In March of 2004, Umberger was traded to the New York Rangers for Martin Rucinsky and just a couple months later, he was signed by the Flyers as a free agent.

"The first year with not playing, it was tough," he says.

"There were a lot of times people questioned it but I stuck with my beliefs and did what I thought was right."

Landing in Philadelphia was also a bit of a shocker given his roots in Pittsburgh. Umberger says he was a diehard Penguins fan growing up and watching Mario Lemieux was basically what got him into hockey. In college, he would still make road trips to Pittsburgh playoff games.

"Then I got signed in Philly," Umberger says. "It was the strangest thing that happened. All of a sudden, you stop rooting for Pittsburgh and your friends and family have to make decisions.

"They would come to games with Flyers jerseys on wanting me to score but hoping the Penguins would win."

Umberger played one full year with the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms during the NHL lockout before securing a spot with the Flyers, which he says was crucial to his overall development. The Phantoms went on to win the Calder Cup and Umberger learned what it took to compete at a high level.

After sitting out the full year and playing one more in the minors, Umberger was ready for his Philly debut. The rookie scored 20 goals and was a plus player in 73 games under Ken Hitchcock.

Hitchcock sees a different player than the energetic kid he had in Philadelphia.

"I think (the difference) is his awareness on the ice," the coach says. "He's more aware of the other players on the ice now and he plays within the framework of a team. He always had the great individual effort, but his work in the team game is much better now.

"(He's) a younger guy, learning how to play and mentally he is up to speed now and he's a solid player because of it."

Umberger received a lot of guidance and teaching points in his first year with Hitchcock that he uses in his game today.

"I learned a lot from him," he says of Hitch. "He demands a lot out of rookies, he's tough on you. He really helps you learn how to play in the NHL.

"Now being in the league for a few years, I have more confidence to play under him and I think he has the confidence that I can play for him."

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