In a bit of an offseason bombshell, Aaron Portzline reported in this morning's Dispatch that veteran winger R.J. Umberger has asked the club to explore a trade this offseason, and will provide them with a list of teams he does not wish to be moved to as part of his no-trade clause when it changes to a limited NTC on June 15th. (One more reason to celebrate Flag Day?)
On Umby's side, this appears to stem from the decision by head coach Todd Richards to sit him for several games during the final stretch run, when Richards said he was looking for more speed and physical play in certain matchups. Given Umberger's long standing with the club and the load he's shouldered over the years, you can easily see why he felt hurt by that decision, though points to him for not making it a source of distraction during the season or through the Blue Jackets' playoff series against Pittsburgh.
That being said, coach Richards had a point - and I think most observers of the team will agree that Umberger's had difficulty living up to his contract of late, which runs through the 2016-17 season with a $4.6 million per year cap hit. That puts him in the territory of a Max Pacioretty, Bryan Little, or Brad Marchand - or if we wanted to look at guys closer to his age, a Ryan Clowe or Scott Hartnell. Umby hasn't been a 50-60 point guy in the last several years, and while he's great at setting up in the crease on the PP, he's had increasing problems with finishing his chances off the rush or in even strength situations.
The Blue Jackets still play a very intense, physical, North-South game, but Umberger's a little slower than, say, a Ryan Johansen or a Brandon Dubinsky, who he was paired with several times this year, and Boone Jenner or Mark Letestu could easily fill a lot of the same roles.
That said, while Porty is right that Umberger's cap hit may make finding a trade partner tricky, it's certainly not impossible. More than a few clubs are opening up a lot of salary going into the offseason - and while I don't see Jarmo looking to move him to another Eastern Conference team, you have to wonder if teams like Anaheim, Dallas, or perhaps even San Jose might be interested in a veteran forward with some solid postseason experience. Other teams might also see him as a mentor who has been through a "rebuilding" phase, and knows how to help shape the room as their youth develop.
Looking at potential destinations, the Blues currently have a fair bit of cap space open, and some holes to fill in their forward corps depending on what they decide to do with UFAs Derek Roy, Steve Ott, and Brenden Morrow. Hitch loved Umby while in Columbus, and he might be a good fit with their style. It certainly wouldn't shock me, though I suppose they'd have to discuss the soccer incident.
Now, with all that said, agreeing to explore a trade and actually making one are two different things - just ask Roberto Luongo. If the team doesn't find a solution in the offseason, I have no doubt that Umby will be a pro and do his best to keep things off the ice, but it will be interesting to see how the rest of the club - and for that matter, the fan base, handle things.
On a personal level, I'm a bit sad, but I'm also realistic. You could see Umberger's role reducing over the course of the last two seasons - he's gone from a top six fixture to a player who was rotated down to the third and fourth lines more and more often as the younger core has come up. He's been a big part of this franchise turning around, a hometown favorite, and he will be missed. He believed in this team and this city through some very dark patches, and he's also been part of some incredible moments.
But part of demanding higher expectations is that changes must be made to meet them, and that generally doesn't take "fan favorite" status into account. He may not bring the bounty of a Rick Nash deal, but I have a feeling that Umberger's return, assuming a trade comes off, will involve a least some draft picks and prospects, perhaps even an NHL ready player, and there are certainly areas of need this could help to address.
I understand both sides of this situation, and don't blame either of them. Sometimes things stop working, and you have to step away.
Perhaps the best thing we can do, aside from waiting to see what happens, is to just say this:
Thank you, Umby.