Flyers sign forward RJ Umberger

By Al Alven

At both the NHL level and throughout its farm system, the strength of the Philadelphia Flyers organization during the 2003-04 season came from the play of the men down the middle.

With pivots Keith Primeau, Jeremy Roenick, Alexei Zhamnov and Michael Handzus leading the way, the Flyers came within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

Meanwhile, 2003 first round draft picks Jeff Carter (11th overall) and Mike Richards (24th overall) continued to emerge as two of the best junior players in the world, and steady Patrick Sharp proved he belonged in his first extended tour of NHL duty.

The Flyers appear to be set at the center position for years to come. Thus, it came as something of a surprise early this week, when published reports indicated that the team was close to signing former Vancouver Canucks first round pick RJ Umberger to a free agent contract.

The deal was made official on Wednesday, the 6’2, 205 lb. Pittsburgh native agreeing to a two-year NHL rookie salary cap contract ($1.185 million base) with bonuses that could earn him up to $1.5 million per season.

“Umberger is very highly skilled, a top-end offensive player,” said general manager Bob Clarke in making the announcement. “Certainly like most young players, he has some defensive stuff to work on, but we think that he has a chance to be a really good National Hockey League player.”

Umberger, 22, sat out all of last season under very unusual circumstances. He left Ohio State University – where he had starred for three seasons – with the intention of turning pro with the Canucks.

However, negotiations between agent Brian Lawton and Vancouver GM Brian Burke went nowhere and the situation became ugly in a hurry.

The Vancouver Sun had reported that the Canucks had offered Umberger 20 percent less in salary to what they had signed 2003 first round selection Ryan Kesler (23rd overall). The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in March that Umberger and Lawton turned down a three-year offer of $625,000, $650,000 and $675,000 base salaries with a $700,000 signing bonus from Vancouver.

Ultimately, both sides abandoned negotiations, and Umberger’s season was left in limbo.

The Canucks dealt Umberger’s rights to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, in a deal that sent veteran forward Martin Rucinsky to British Columbia. Rangers GM Glen Sather publicly stated that he wanted to sign the talented center on numerous occasions.

Some observers continue to question Sather’s sincerity with regards to this matter. Umberger did travel briefly with the Rangers and practiced with their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, late in the season. However, an official contract offer was never made.

The Rangers lost Umberger’s rights by failing to sign him by the June 1 deadline, but they will receive a second round selection (46th overall) in the upcoming entry draft as compensation. Many feel that obtaining this pick was Sather’s sole intention all along.

At any rate, Umberger is now under contract to the Flyers. According to published reports, he was pursued by a handful of teams (including his hometown Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs) when he became a free agent, but ultimately decided that Philadelphia was the right fit for him.

Umberger immediately bolsters the Flyers’ already-impressive core of talented center prospects. A move to right wing could be in his future, but he will remain at his current position when he makes his expected pro debut with the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms next season.

It remains to be seen how Umberger’s game will translate at the pro level and whether or not the year away from competitive hockey will affect his game. He spent part of last season practicing with the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) and the rest training by himself.

Umberger first burst onto the national hockey stage during his time at Plum High School in suburban Pittsburgh (1994-98). As a senior, he led his team to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League Class AAA championship.

He joined the USNTDP after graduation, appearing in 63 games with the U.S. Jr. National Team over two seasons. In 1999-2000, he led the squad with 68 points (33 goals, 35 assists) in 57 games. The second-leading scorer on the team, forward John Waibel, had only 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 51 games.

Umberger was ranked 25th among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s 2000 mid-term report. However, he decided not to “opt in” for the draft that year, and soon after committed to Ohio State University.

Considered to be among the top three college recruits in the nation, Umberger made an immediate impact in the NCAA. In his freshman season, he led the Buckeyes with 37 points in 32 games en route to being named CCHA Rookie of the Year.

That June, with his status as a top collegiate prospect solidified, Umberger was selected by the Canucks with the 16th overall pick of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft (the highest selection ever for a player from Ohio State). He was taken 11 picks ahead of where the Flyers selected Red Deer defensemen Jeff Woywitka (27th overall).

Umberger continued to emerge as a player on the rise over his next two seasons with the Buckeyes. He led Ohio State in scoring in each of his three seasons with the team, finishing his NCAA career with 129 points (58 goals, 71 assists) and 65 PIMs in 112 total games.

George Bachul contributed to this report.