What to make of the Umberger/Hartnell trade

Just days before hosting the NHL Draft, the Philadelphia Flyers once again made waves around the league when they sent Scott Hartnell to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for RJ Umberger and a 2015 4th round pick.

Umberger still has three years left on a five year, $23 million contract but was on his way out of Columbus after he and the organization agreed to mutually part ways. In Philadelphia, it was the opposite, as new general manager Ron Hextall told Hartnell he was looking to move him and was no longer in the team’s long-term plans.

How does this trade work out in the now and later? First a quick glance at their numbers.

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With Hartnell, the Blue Jackets truly get one of the most frustrating, yet underappreciated players in the league. The left winger has been a sound possession player the past several seasons in the league. His 6.2% Relative Corsi ranked in the top 25 of all skaters last season and was a still plus possession player away from Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Hartnell still put up a respectable 1.78 ESP/60 as a top-six forward and will bring a strong addition to the Columbus power play. His physicality fits right in the Columbus style of play and is a welcomed addition to the Jackets forward core. The gritty forward will undoubtedly be a strong veteran presence for one of the youngest teams in the league.

On the downside, while Hartnell’s cap hit is team friendly now, the five years left on his contract is not. He will be 37 when his contract runs out and consequently could make Columbus regret this deal in a few years. Hartnell is by no means a strong skater (#HartnellDown anyone?) and he takes too many penalties for a player in his role. His game at times was anchored with inconsistent stretches on offense and kept him from solidifying his place as a top line score in Philadelphia. Despite the risk of decline in his game, Columbus is hedging their bets on the results now will be greater than the risk later. To turn Umberger into Hartnell, it’s a great result for general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen.

While trading Hartnell can be justifiable on the Flyers end, the return in the deal is head scratching at best. Acquiring Umberger not only brings back a less productive player to Philadelphia, it brings an almost equitable cap hit for the next three seasons. Umberger at his best was around a 55 point player and has not sniffed those numbers in the last three seasons. His 1.18 ESP/60 will not cut it in Philadelphia, coupled with the fact he will likely see his power play time decline.

An alarming statistic is Umberger’s struggles in possession as he was the worst regular skater on the Blue Jackets in Relative Corsi. Considering the Flyers are already a slightly below average possession team, this doesn’t bode well going forward in the team’s current make up. I’m no math major but subtracting one of your best possession players and adding another team’s worst does not seem like a winning equation. Even his shooting percentage was his highest since 2006 and should expect a regression of a few percentage points there.

Although Umberger’s speed, lineup versatility and position flexibility are nothing to write off, he far from a quality return in this trade. It’s tough to picture where in the lineup Umberger will find a home. He lacks the offensive punch Hartnell had to replace him on the top line and the second line is already stuck with a possession black hole (see Lecavalier, Vinny). Umberger could be a fit with Sean Couturier and Matt Read if he can find his goal scoring touch from years past. He’s played comparable quality of competition to Hartnell and has experience on the penalty kill, so a role on the shutdown line is not far fetched.

This feels like a work in progress for Hextall and the Flyers after the trade rather than a finite solution. They can’t conceivably go into next season with a few patchwork UFA’s and expect to have success. Umberger is part of the Flyers near future like it or not but there is still work to be done with the current roster. If this move gives Hextall flexibility to fix some of the other issues like the defense or resolving the Lecavalier situation, then it can be re-evaluated after the fact. The biggest positive to this deal if anything is it opens cap space for future when players like Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn will be ready for their next contract.

But at this moment in time, it appears the Columbus is the clear winner in this deal. In a team looking to take the next step, they get a boost to their lineup, power play and locker room with the addition of Hartnell. With Philadelphia, it’s more confusing than resolving. But knowing the Flyers, you never know what to expect next.


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