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2015-16 Flyers season review: No bounceback season for R.J. Umberger

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Following offseason surgery, hopes were high that R.J. Umberger would rebound from his disappointing 2014-15 season. Instead, Umberger struggled again, and is now seemingly out of the organization's future plans.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

During his first three-year stint in Philadelphia at the start of his career, R.J. Umberger established himself as an intriguing young player with a great deal of potential. He scored 20 goals in his rookie year, and then after a bit of a sophomore slump, broke out in his third season with 50 points. His eight-goal performance in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens that year was the obvious high point of his Philadelphia career.

Cashing in on his sky-high value that offseason, the Flyers sent Umberger to Columbus for a package centered around a first-round pick. He would spend six solid seasons with the Blue Jackets before they shipped him back to Philadelphia in a one-for-one player swap in 2014, a deal which also included fan-favorite Scott Hartnell.

But the Flyers weren't getting a prime-age player like Columbus did back in 2008. Umberger had shown real signs of decline in the three seasons prior to the trade, and Philadelphia clearly hoped that a change of scenery would reverse the trend.

Instead, Umberger's production fell off a cliff, as he scored just 15 points in 67 games during his first season back in Philadelphia. His year finally ended in mid-March, when he chose to have surgery for a lingering abdominal/hip issue. The injury and ensuing surgery gave both the team and fans hope that a fully healthy Umberger would be far more effective for the 2015-16 season.

Unfortunately, that proved to not be the case.

R.J. Umberger

Position W
Age 34 (5/3/1982)
Contract Status Signed through 2016-17 for $4,600,000 per year

2015-16 Regular Season Numbers:

Games Played G A P
39 2 9 11

Total 5-on-5 Power Play Penalty Kill Other
10.03 9.40 0.44 0.13 0.06

Corsi For % Corsi Rel % Goals For % PDO
45.87% -4.81% 53.57% 102.04

Points Per 60 Minutes Penalty Differential Scoring Chances Per 60 Shots On Goal Per 60 Shot Attempts Per 60 Offensive Zone Starts Defensive Zone Starts
1.47 0 6.70 7.20 11.13 119 109

Controlled Entry Percentage Entries Per 60 On-Ice Entries % For Neutral Zone Score
33.72% 14.10 47.61% 46.93%

The story of a disappointing season

Umberger got off to a promising start in 2015-16. His skating looked rejuvenated in training camp following the offseason surgery, and the new-and-improved Umberger became one of the talks of the preseason for the Flyers. It even carried over to the start of the regular season -- he finished with two assists in the opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning and was one of the team's most dangerous forwards throughout the game. A rebound season was looking more and more possible by the minute.

But the narrative changed just days later. Umberger apparently suffered an upper-body injury in Game 2 of the season during a blowout loss to the Florida Panthers. He missed just three games, but the stronger, quicker Umberger did not return on October 21 when he was placed back into the lineup. Yet again, Umberger looked tentative and a step behind the pace of play on the ice, just as he had during the 2014-15 season.

Umberger could never really regain the spark that he showed during those first two games. He suffered another injury (this time of the lower-body variety) in mid-November and missed nearly a month of action, even though the original timeline released by the Flyers was one-to-two weeks. Upon his return, Umberger saw his ice time dwindle and was unable to light the lamp even once, resulting in five consecutive healthy scratches in early February.

He found his way back into the lineup on February 11th and celebrated his return with his only meaningful goal of the season (Umberger's second and last goal came in the finale, after a Flyers playoff spot was clinched).  But the surprise tally proved not to be a harbinger of good things to come, as Umberger played just five more games before being scratched for the remainder of the year (with the exception of that meaningless finale).

Stats are not kind to Umberger

It's hard to find a single statistic -- basic or advanced -- that presents Umberger's season as anything less than an unmitigated disaster. In 39 games, he could muster just 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) and took merely 48 shots on goal, especially disheartening coming from a player who would regularly pepper goaltenders with over 200 shots while in his prime.

He brought up the rear on the team in on-ice shot attempt differential, as well. His score-adjusted Corsi For percentage of 45.75% was the worst among Flyers forwards with at least 100 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season. Umberger's biggest issue appears to have been poor neutral zone results -- with Umberger on the ice, the Flyers generated 438 entries into the offensive zone, but they allowed 482 of them going the other way, meaning that Philadelphia created just 47.61% of the total entries with Umberger playing, another team-low.

Microstats hint that Umberger simply doesn't control the puck enough anymore to be an effective play-driver. He averaged just 14.10 individual offensive zone entries per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, and controlled the puck in the defensive zone only 24.59 times per 60. Compare Umberger to the leaders at forward in the two respective categories -- Jakub Voracek generated 24.70 entries per 60, while Sean Couturier touched the puck in the defensive zone 36.88 times per 60 minutes -- and it's obvious that the 34-year old forward lags far behind.

Both Voracek and Couturier drove play in the right direction per their full-season Corsi metrics, and they began that process by winning foot races and puck battles in the defensive zone, and by actively carrying the puck up ice to initiate an attack. For whatever reason -- injury, age, a lack of confidence -- R.J. Umberger can no longer do so, and has turned into a passive observer in all three zones. His statistics are suffering as a result.

What to do with Umberger

By the end of the season, even a fully-healthy R.J. Umberger had become an afterthought for Dave Hakstol and the Flyers. He was scratched for the final 23 meaningful games of the season, and the Flyers turned to AHL stalwart Colin McDonald as a playoff injury replacement instead of a ready-to-play Umberger. The implication is clear -- Umberger no longer has much of a place on the Philadelphia roster.

The implication is clear -- Umberger no longer has much of a place on the Philadelphia roster.

In the team's exit interviews following the playoff loss to the Capitals, Umberger himself admitted that he expected his contract to be bought out by the Flyers during the offseason. He only has one year remaining on his deal, but if Philadelphia has no intention of giving him regular playing time, the best move for both parties would likely be a buyout.

That buyout would leave the Flyers with a residual $1.6 million cap charge in 2016-17, three million dollars less than if Umberger stayed on the roster. But they would be forced to swallow an additional $1.5 million charge for 2017-18, rather than seeing the forward simply leave the books after next season.

Expansion rules may make the Flyers' pending decision far easier. As Las Vegas is expected to be awarded a new franchise in the coming weeks, an expansion draft is likely for June 2017. Larry Brooks reported on Sunday that teams would be forced to use their important "protection slots" (meant to prevent the expansion team from taking key players from existing teams) on any players with no-movement clauses, even if said contracts are scheduled to expire mere weeks after the expansion draft.

Umberger would fall in this strange category. If this proves to be the final rule, it's hard to imagine the Flyers keeping Umberger on the roster next year to serve as a regular healthy scratch if it also means sacrificing a protection slot that instead could be used to keep a useful forward like Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, or Nick Cousins.

The Flyers were probably leaning towards a buyout anyway, both to save cap space for next season and to give Umberger, who to his credit has remained a good soldier despite being benched, a chance to catch on with another NHL team. But due to the coming expansion draft, the needle gauging the possibility of an Umberger buyout is quickly moving from "likely" to "inevitable."

Player Card (via hockeyviz.com):

Umberger Stats

Neutral zone data via BSH's Charlie O'Connor; all other data via war-on-ice.com unless otherwise noted.