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Meltzer's Musings: Umberger, Rookie Camp Quick Hits

September 15, 2015, 12:33 AM ET [173 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT

Flyers forward R.J. Umberger readily admits that his performance on the ice was nowhere near what he wanted it to be in the first season back with the organization in which he played the first four seasons of his pro career and his first three years in the NHL. Likewise, the final year of his six-season stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets did not meet up expectations.

The primary reason: Umberger gamely but unwisely attempted to play through increasingly severe physical problems.

"I don't think [the Flyers] knew exactly how bad it was," Umberger said on Monday after working out on the ice with the Flyers veterans at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ, in preparation for the start of training camp on Friday.

"I take a lot of blame in that. When I was in Columbus at the end of the [2013-14] season, things progressively got worse. They knew that and they didn't do a lot to help me. They told me I just had a 'hockey back' -- a herniated disc -- and, with some rest in the summer, I should feel good. As last summer went along, it just got continuously worse and worse."

Umberger was also not a healthy player in his final season in Columbus. Shortly after the end of the 2013-14 campaign, prior to his trade to the Flyers, Columbus Dispatch Blue Jackets beat writer Aaron Portzline reported that Umberger attempted to play through multiple injuries, including a herniated disc in his back and a separated shoulder. That put some context into a down season in which Umberger went from lineup mainstay to a semi-healthy scratch.

Eager to compete and not wanting to make excuses for the downturn in his play, Umberger stoically denied that he was having issues -- even as his skating ability was severely hampered and the five-time 20-goal scorer struggled to find more than fleeting success in re-establishing the two-way game that had been his calling card.

"I found myself in kind of a hard place. I just got traded. I wanted a fresh start and I didn't want to [not compete]. Looking back, I should have spoke up and said how I truly felt. It could have been handled a lot sooner. I truly didn't know the reason why my hip and back were hurting so bad, and pain spread from my hip, to my groin and then to my abdomen," said Umberger.

Umberger then described a nightmarish year that ended in mid-March. Whether on the ice, in the dressing room or even at home with his family, he was in both physical pain and mental anguish.

"I couldn't skate efficiently. In training for the season, I couldn't be as intense as normal. I had to pull back a lot because I'd have to stop in the middle of a lot of things. I was in so much pain. It should have been a red flag, for sure. So I came into camp not in the tip-top shape I normally am, cardio-wise. I just wasn't where I needed to be. Things like my skating test reflected it," said Umberger.

Pretty much every aspect of Umberger's skating game was hindered last year and, with it, he looked not only slow but downright ineffective in the sorts of situations that used to play to his strengths.

"Being able to get up and down the ice. Being able to work the pucks in the corner. Being strong on your feet. Getting from loose puck to loose puck. I couldn't do that stuff last year. Where it really got evident last year was when it got to my groin and my abdominal area. I could not push off of one leg. Being on the boards, getting a breakout pass and going up the ice, it took me like three or four extra strides. You can't do that. This game is too fast, the kids are faster than they were, even three or four years ago. To be that far behind, it was miserable."

Umberger suffered in silence for much of the year, accepting the criticism of his play that he received from the coaches, fans and media without letting on that his condition was deteriorating. Likewise, he kept to himself how much of a toll his physical issues took on his mental and emotional state.

"There were days, especially game days, where I didn't know how I was going to get myself on the ice. Normally, a couple hours before the game, you are loosening up. You are getting focused and getting your head where it needs to be. For me, it was, 'How am I even going to get my body to where I can walk out and play? I have to find a way.' So my preparation levels, day in and day out, were tough.You start thinking, "How am I going to make it through tomorrow, let alone play the rest of my career?' It got to a point where I knew I wasn't helping the team.

"The toughest part, honestly, was my daily life at home. It was miserable. I couldn't move around. I couldn't play with my kids. I was constantly in pain. Things like that were not fun."

One of the hardest lessons that Umberger has had to learn over the past year is that he needs to listen to what his body is telling him and not only to the internal play-at-all-costs competitiveness that drives most hockey players. He still prides himself in being an "iron man" who dressed in all 82 games in each of the 2008-09 to 2010-11 seasons and previously missed just one game in 2006-07. However, he now realizes that, with certain injuries, it is not advisable for a player to try to grit his way through them.

"This was the first really major injury I've had," he said. "In Columbus, I played through every single thing I could play through. Bruises, broken fingers, whatever. None of them really affected my play to that degree. With this one, it was the wrong thing to do. It's not the correct thing to play through something that severe. When I really took a step back, I could see it.

"By January or February, I could barely move. I was bad for the team, and I realized I couldn't keep doing this. Actually, it was kind of along the same lines as a concussion, because you need to take off the time you need when there's something wrong. It hurt me through the season."

Finally, enough was enough. After being a "healthy" scratch for a game in March, Umberger was shut down for the rest of the year. On March 19, he underwent surgeries repair his right hip and bilateral abdominal areas. The diagnosis of the hip and abdominal tears and the subsequent successful surgeries were the beginning of turning things around physically.

The rehab process over the spring and summer was grueling, but Umberger said that he kept a single-minded focus on getting himself well and being both physically and emotionally ready for the opportunity to show that, at age 33, he still can be an effective contributor to the Flyers.

"I feel like a whole different person now; it's like night and day," said Umberger. "It's just nice to feel healthy again and be able to start fresh. I was able to train much better this summer. I feel stronger. Guys have told me I look faster on the ice."

Before the wave of injuries he sustained the past few seasons, Umberger was a reliable and versatile forward who could play in all game situations, was a plus-skater and could be penciled in annually for 20 to 24 goals. That player has rarely been seen the last few years.

At age 33, it is questionable whether Umberger can ever fully regain the form he showed as a young player with the Flyers or his best years in Columbus. He has two seasons to go on a contract with a $4.6 million cap hit. The Flyers need to hope to holds up physically.

Umberger isn't garbage, although a segment of the fan base rags on him constantly. He deserves more respect than that as a player who has enjoyed his share of success during his career. No, the trade that sent Scott Hartnell to Columbus and brought Umberger back to Philly was not a popular one even at the time it was made, No, the trade has not worked out well thus for Philadelphia.

If reasonably healthy, however, Umberger is still capable of being a significantly more effective than he has been of late. Even if his 20-plus goal, 50-plus point seasons are a thing of the past, a healthier Umberger could make the Flyers a deeper team than they were a year ago.

If similar injuries to the last two seasons arise again, Umberger needs to uphold his pledge to more proactive in his self-reports than he's been in the past. If Umberger experiences recurrent problems next season, the Flyers should not hesitate to put him on long-term injured reserve. If he's healthy, he needs to prove to Dave Hakstol that he is much better than the player the team saw for the decided majority of the 69 games he played in 2014-15



* On the opening day of rookie camp in advance of the Flyers' full-roster 2015 training camp, the team's prospects went through a variety of baseline tests. On Tuesday, the players will take to the ice at 9:45 a.m. for the first of two practice sessions. Flyers head coach said that rather than being instructional and systems-teaching based, the sessions will be fast-paced and "compete oriented."

* While the Flyers rookies work out on one of the Skate Zone rinks, the Flyers have their full complement of veteran players skating on the other to get ready for the official start of camp on Friday after physicals on Thursday. Veteran defenseman Mark Streit was the final returning player to arrive. Now everyone is on hand.

* Along with Umberger and Vincent Lecavalier, perhaps no Flyers forward had a more disappointing 2014-15 season than Matt Read. On Monday, Read said he is eager to get to work with Hakstol.

"I played against his team a lot in college, and I liked the way they played. Turning defense to offense was a bit attribute of his teams. I'm looking forward to finding out our systems here," said Read.

"We haven't really talked much off the ice but I'm looking forward to the new opportunity with him. I think he's going to be good for the team. What I've heard from all of his ex-players that I've worked out with was that he's a great coach; a smart coach but he's not afraid to be firm and get in someone's ear if he has to. I can't wait til camp starts and get some new opportunities."

* Read feels the Flyers penalty-killing woes last season took about half the season to correct but the team moved in the right direction after the All-Star break.

Said Read, "Last year we were kind of out synch for, I'd say, the first half of the year. We were just half a hair off every t ime and we went through a spell where it felt like every time we were on the penalty kill, they would score. Later on in the season, we just finally clicked and figured out what was going on. We kind of fixed our systems a little bit."

* Read says he has no explanation for why the Flyers had such a drastic discrepancy between their home and road records last season, saying "nothing really changes on the road."

Last year, Philly produced a robust 53 points on home ice. They would have needed to be a little over a statistical.500 in away games -- 44 points -- to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately, they mustered a meager 31 points (10-20-11) in away games. The previous season, the Flyers had 43 road points (18-16-7) to go along with 51 home points but it was enough to make the playoffs as a third seed in the Metro in a year where 93 points was the wildcard cutoff point.

* Congratulations go out to former Flyers enforcer and current Lehigh Valley Phantoms assistant coach Riley Cote and his wife, Ashley, who delivered a healthy baby girl, Kinsley Noelle.
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