Observers of the 2009-10 Penguins have noted that the team’s distribution of goals is decidedly centre-centric. Including last night’s 5-4 win over Buffalo, Pittsburgh’s three star centres, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have accounted for over 40% of the team’s 173 non-shootout goals. In fact, the trio have outscored all Penguins’ wingers combined so far this season.
Naturally as the trade deadline draws closer, voices in the rumor grapevine suggest the Penguins will be looking to add a winger who can be counted on as a finisher around the net. Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch wrote this past Sunday that Blue Jackets’ left wing/centre R.J. Umberger, the first-ever Pittsburgh-born player taken in the first round of an NHL draft, is a forward coveted by his hometown team. Umberger, 27, has played in all 57 games for Columbus this season and with 18 goals and 38 points, is a lock to post his third career 20+ goal campaign, skating on the Jackets’ top line with Antoine Vermette and Rick Nash. After playing his first three years in Philadelphia, Umberger signed a 4-year, $15-million contract with Columbus during the summer of 2008.
Portzline reasons that if the Penguins re-sign top defenceman Sergei Gonchar, then they would be willing to deal restricted free agent blueliner Kris Letang and possibly a first-round pick for Umberger.
In my opinion, Letang is a major part of Pittsburgh’s present and future and Pens’ GM Ray Shero would have to be absolutely blown away by a trade proposal to deal one of the core pieces of the Penguins at the deadline. While Umberger would be a great addition in Pittsburgh, I don’t believe he represents fair value in this trade scenario. Letang, 22, is playing some of his best hockey right now. Over the past nine games, he has scored 1 goal and added 6 assists while occasionally seeing time on the Penguins’ first power-play unit, an area where he could be a fixture at the point for years to come. He is also physically asserting himself more often from behind his own blue line.
Last month, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the Penguins have already initiated very preliminary negotiations with both Gonchar and Letang. Due to the constraints of the salary cap, the Penguins may be forced into a situation where they will have to choose one or the other, but not both. Whether they decide to invest in the younger Letang or the savvy vet Gonchar remains to be seen, but it is very doubtful that any contract extensions will be finalized before the trade deadline to set in motion a trade for Umberger.
In fairness to Portzline, he wrote a concise follow up on the Dispatch Puck-Rakers Blog, clarifying that the Blue Jackets’ demands in exchange for Umberger “would be too steep”. Moreover, he notes that Umberger has become the “conscience of … a club that has too few leaders”.
Further quelling of Umberger-to-Pittsburgh rumors occurred on the Penguins Hotline post-game show on the Penguins Radio Network last night when host Bob Grove cast suspicion on the credibility of Umberger rumors that come from non-specific sources or mere “word around the NHL”. His co-host, former Penguin and radio analyst Phil Bourque chimed in that too many rumors start when “every Tom, Dick and Harry sitting in a barber’s chair talking Penguins hockey say ‘How ’bout gettin’ that R.J. Umberger? Who’re we gonna’ trade? Aw, throw Letang in there!’ … That’s how these things go … Usually the trades that end up happening are the ones you never hear about”.
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch