Welcome to the first installment of NHL Fantasy Futures where we look at up and coming NHL players and their potential impact in fantasy hockey leagues.
R.J. Umberger is a former 2001 first round pick of the Vancouver Canucks. Drafted 16th overall, the Ohio State University product and Pittsburgh, PA native shared the podium that day with current NHL stars Ilya Kovalchuk (1st), Jason Spezza (2nd) and Alex Hemsky (13th).
During his three-year stint at Ohio State where he averaged more than a point per game in each season, Umberger's teammates included current Vancouver Canuck Ryan Kesler, New Jersey Devil Rod Pelley, and Washington Capital, Dave Steckel.
Prior to Ohio State, Umberger played two seasons with the US Junior National Team, where in 1999-00, he scored 62 points in 57 games.
In 2004, Umberger was traded by Vancouver to the New York Rangers in a deadline deal for Martin Rucinsky. He was later signed as a free agent by Philadelphia that summer and called up to the Flyers in the 2005-06 season after a 65-point campaign with the Flyers' AHL affiliate Phantoms.
Umberger had a successful NHL rookie season, posting 20 goals and 18 assists for 38 points in 73 games. The 6-foot-2, 200 pound forward impressed Flyers' management with his blend of size and skill.
In 2006-07, however, Umberger suffered the dreaded sophomore jinx by struggling through a dismal 28-point season and a league-worst minus 32 plus minus rating. Ouch!
On a team coached by defensively-minded Ken Hitchcock, it was this apparent lack of effort in the defensive zone that earned Umberger plenty of fourth line duty for the Flyers as the 2007 season ended.
For fantasy hockey owners who selected Umberger in keeper league formats, fear not, as Umberger appears to have turned the corner after an impressive 2007-08 season and an inspiring playoff performance.
Playing both center and left wing, Umberger's all-around game improved last year with an even zero plus minus rating, a respectful 173 shots on goal and 50 points. Umberger saved his best for the playoffs, however, as he scored 15 points in 17 postseason games including 10 goals.
Umberger, along with the stellar net minding of Martin Biron, almost single-handedly disposed of the Eastern Conference champion Montreal Canadiens in their semi-final series.
Despite the fantastic playoff performance, Umberger was dealt by the Flyers to the Columbus Blue Jackets on the floor of this year's NHL Entry Draft.
In exchange, the Flyers received Colorado’s 2008 first round pick (previously acquired by Columbus) and a 2008 third round pick. Flyers' GM, Paul Holmgren, described the deal as a necessary evil thanks in large part to pending salary cap issues, which undoubtedly included the Flyers' desire to sign forward Jeff Carter to a long-term contract.
In the end, someone had to go in Philadelphia and Umberger was the odd man out.
In Columbus, Umberger joins his old coach in Ken Hitchcock who has already mused openly about using the big forward as a center iceman flanked by goal scoring dynamo, Rick Nash.
If this is the case, Umberger's fantasy value just went through the roof as he will finally have first-line minutes and increased powerplay time on a thin Columbus forward unit.
RJ Umberger is a big, strong skilled forward with soft hands and deceptive speed. He excels more as a playmaker than a scorer despite his 2008 playoff heroics, which should make him an excellent linemate for Nash who shoots every time the puck reaches his stick.
Umberger should be capable of consistently producing 75-point seasons in future with potential upside of 85-points.
For most 10-team fantasy hockey leagues using a minimum 20-man roster, Umberger should serve nicely as a top-five forward but should not be confused with elite producers such as Sydney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Jason Spezza.