My, how things change... Reflecting on an off-season full of optimism and excitement, I found myself considering the many things gone wrong in Columbus this year, and Umberger certainly tops the list. After coming to the Blue Jackets from Philadelphia, he quickly became a fan favourite for his tenacious on ice effort and quality interaction both in the media and in local events. But what has become of him? Admittedly my efforts on this piece came before his performance last night against Montreal, which frankly was very strong, forcing me to modify abysmal stat totals below to slightly less unimpressive totals. If he were to go on a tear and play the next twenty games the way he did against the Canadiens, I will be writing a follow up piece on his rise in quality.
With that said, his productivity on ice has been mediocre. Bouncing around between the top two lines, he is tied for 8th on the team with just nine points (four goals, five assists) in 27 games. He has scored two points on the powerplay, and is an impressively bad 4.0% shooting. He is also tie for 6th worst on the team in plus/minus at -7. He is on pace for 27 points, leaving him with his lowest point total in his ENTIRE National Hockey League Career. Lower than his sophomore year with Philadelphia in 06/07 which he netted 28 points in 81 games.
Look first at his contract extension signed this summer. Arguably deserving of a raise from his current 3.75 million dollar cap hit (he will earn 4.5 million this year), Columbus locked him in for five years at an average cap hit of 4.6 million. Realistically it would have been appropriate to provide him with a salary of around 4.5 million or so for the next couple years as he is in his prime at the age of 29, averaging in the mid 50 point range year after year. With that said, I longed for a contract that extended into his late thirties, yet tailed off in yearly salary to allow him to retire a Blue Jacket while providing a lower cap hit for the team.
Secondary to my disappointment in his fairly level contract, was the immediate need of Howson to get the deal done before the year began. While I can understand not wanting to burden the team or Umberger with contract talks throughout the year, I am a firm believer in allowing a player to 'earn' his contract in the time between the beginning of the season and the new year. With that in mind, I can't help but assume that if contract talks began today, rather than in the summer, how much less Umberger would have signed for.
Looking back at his production with the Blue Jackets, I am even more surprised that a deal was not struck to maintain if not lower his current cap hit. While he may earn or deserve to earn similar dollars from his most recent year (he will be paid 4.5 million this year in the final year of his current contract), he will be in his mid/late 30s after the new deal expires. Based on that, and the general expectations of a reduction in quality as a player ages into his late thirties, I see no real reason why he could not have added on two or three years at 1-2 million in order to reduce the hit against the team substantially for the duration of the contract. Even two years at two million and one year at one million added to the end would drop his cap hit to 3.5 million, giving the team the flexibility to add another million dollar player to the lineup. This would be the appropriate deal for a player who seemed willing to take a discount to stay with the team. But at 4.5 million per year, did the Jackets really benefit, or did they pay open market value?
With that in mind I began to try and compile a few comparable players as well as statistical similarities. Four players were considered, with various styles of play. They are the following:
Andrew Ladd :: 59 points in 2010/2011 :: 4.4mil cap hit (for 5 yrs)
Brooks Laich :: 48 points in 2010/2011 :: 4.5mil cap hit (for 6 yrs)
Drew Stafford :: 52 points in 2010/2011 :: 4.0mil cap hit (for 4 yrs)
Joe Pavelski :: 66 points in 2010/2011 :: 4.0mil cap hit (for 4 yrs)
Ladd and Laich share some very similar playing styles and are generally in the same scoring realm as Umberger. They are also connected with leadership roles, more notable in Ladd who is the current captain in Winnipeg. Where Laich may lack in scoring, he more than makes up for in grit, and plays some very difficult minutes for Washington Stafford and Pavelski on the other hand can play a gritty game but seem far better suited for scoring first. Pavelski is one of the few players who seem to play better in the playoffs when the pressure is high, but is currently averaging just under a point per game this season.
Between Umberger and the four noted above, without his previous history with the Jackets (aka homerisms) I would probably place him in third place on my depth chart, below Ladd and Pavelski. Considering RJ is due to average 4.6 million against the cap, this should come as a pretty big disappointment for any of those thinking that RJ has Columbus in mind first before himself. Additionally, these comparisons are really only relevant when you consider RJ as a 50+ point getter, not the current production of around 0.33 points per game.
Obviously the future is all that really matters, but as it stands I don't believe RJ to be earning his current 3.75 million dollar cap hit, let alone what he will cost the team for the next five years. He has always been a preferred player of mine, but for the cap hit, he needs to be a much more dynamic player. He needs to find the player that convinced many in the fan base to reconsider the captaincy less than a year ago. Last night was a bright spot in his year, but it will take more than one performance to sell me on his level of success this year. Until then, he's bound to be at the forefront of 'harsh shakeups' via trade possibilities.
Carry the Flag.