The Philadelphia Flyers are nothing if not interesting during the offseason.
Keeping with their penchant for big summer trades, on Monday, the Flyers dealt left wing Scott Hartnell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for R.J. Umberger, a former Flyer who brings more versatility to the lineup than Hartnell.
Umberger also brings fewer goals and less offensive ability, so this is quite the perplexing deal on the surface.
Hartnell and Umberger are both 32 years old. Their cap hits are nearly identical—Hartnell's is $4.75 million, while Umberger's is $4.6 million—although Umberger's contract expires in 2016-17, while Hartnell's deal runs through 2019. According to Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada, neither team retained any salary.
Hartnell had to waive a no-trade clause to go to Columbus; Umberger had a limited no-trade clause that clearly didn't include Philadelphia on a list of teams to which he would not accept a deal.
If the superficial reasons for the Flyers making this trade are not obvious, one must delve deeper.
This is a deal that appears to be less about what the Flyers are receiving in return and more about how it affects the players already on their roster.
New general manager Ron Hextall said he views Umberger as a wing, although how he is deployed is up to coach Craig Berube. Hextall said he likes Umberger's ability to play either top-six or bottom-six minutes and the fact he brings more speed to the lineup than Hartnell.
Hexy said "No. 1 thing was we wanted to get quicker up front"— Tim Panaccio (@tpanotchCSN) June 23, 2014
Likes the fact he can play up or down in the lineup— Tim Panaccio (@tpanotchCSN) June 23, 2014
Those descriptors of Umberger can't be applied to Vinny Lecavalier, who was a massive disappointment in the first year of a five-year, $22.5 million contract. Lecavalier looked slow, was unable to play a 200-foot game and was relegated to the fourth line near the end of the regular season and playoffs. It's possible Berube feels Lecavalier's value is best maximized by having him on the left wing as opposed to centering a line with Zac Rinaldo and Adam Hall.
If there's one area the Flyers are loaded, it's on the wings. Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Matt Read are all excellent, while restricted free agent Jason Akeson acquitted himself well during the postseason. If Berube feels that Lecavalier can't be a second-line center and has to be placed on the wing, that leaves no room for Hartnell.
"R.J. is a versatile guy who can play all positions," Berube said in a press release. "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."
Berube can choose to go with Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Umberger down the middle. That's not a bad trio if Umberger can deliver.
That's the real question in this deal: Can Umberger deliver?
There's no real comparison between Umberger and Hartnell when it comes to any available metric. Extra Skater broke down the two players in terms of their possession numbers, and Hartnell is light years ahead of Umberger in every category. Hartnell dipped to 20 goals last season after scoring 37 two years ago, while Umberger scored 18 but got there with his best shooting percentage (13.2) in seven seasons.
|R.J. Umberger vs. Vinny Lecavalier, 2013-14|
Hartnell is a better player than Umberger, no question about it. But if it turns out Giroux was the driving force behind Hartnell's numbers, it's not quite as lopsided a deal as it seems.
Umberger is probably better than Lecavalier right now. The same Extra Skater breakdown shows Umberger was possessing things more consistently than Lecavalier last season. If the Flyers felt they had a glut of wings and Lecavalier could no longer play the middle, dealing a wing for an upgrade at center that includes a contract that expires two years sooner than the one they had originally makes some sense.
The Blue Jackets dealt a player who was a candidate for a buyout and received a player who could score 30 goals for them. It's easy to see why GM Jarmo Kekalainen was probably trembling with excitement as he reported the deal to the NHL and why Flyers fans are upset about parting with a valuable asset in exchange for someone who may have been available for less money in a week.
Umberger potentially gives Philadelphia a better third center, more flexibility and a less prohibitive contract.
The logic for the Flyers is more muddled, but it's there.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.