READING BETWEEN the lines, the knock on R.J. Umberger last year in Columbus was that he was slow. He couldn't keep up with the up-tempo Blue Jackets, who were marching toward their second playoff berth in franchise history mostly without him.

Umberger was sidelined as a healthy scratch by coach Todd Richards when the games mattered most in March and April.

Umberger, 32, met general manager Jarmo Kekalainen after the season and asked the Blue Jackets for a ticket out of town.

With 3 years and $13.5 million left on his deal, finding a buyer would be tough. His heavy $4.6 million salary-cap hit meant he was likely heading for a buyout - until Ron Hextall surprisingly stepped in and offered Scott Hartnell.

Umberger has been back with the Flyers for 14 games now, but he still hasn't been able to shake the rap of a once-consistent 20-goal scorer who the game has passed by.

Carrying that reputation around, Umberger said yesterday, has felt like "I've had a piano on my back." It is even more in focus this week, since Umberger and Hartnell will clash for the first time since their straight-up trade when Columbus visits tomorrow night.

"Well, he can skate better," coach Craig Berube said. "Since he's had the weight of the world on his shoulders, you don't skate as good. He needs to free up a little bit and move and trust his abilities."

With just one goal and two assists in 14 games, Umberger is off to the worst start in his career. Defenseman Andrew MacDonald has the same number of points in seven fewer games. Umberger has tried not to play the size-up game with Hartnell, but the numbers are hard to ignore.

Hartnell, also 32, has netted 14 points in 15 games even though the banged-up Blue Jackets tied a franchise-record winless streak (0-8-1) Tuesday in Washington.

"Players obviously want to outduel the other guy," Umberger said. "For me, I put a lot of pressure on myself. That's probably the thing that eats at me. I'm aware of what he's done. He's a good player and he's going to do well. There's no doubt about that.

"He's playing on a line with [Ryan] Johansen and [Nick] Foligno, two of the hottest guys [in the league]. He's getting first power-play-unit time. That helps a lot. You can't look at that and compare each other straight up. I know a lot of people will. For me, personally, I've got to focus on my own game."

Berube's message to Umberger is to "just relax and play." He did have just one goal and four assists in his first 14 games in 2011-12 and went on to post 20 goals and 20 assists that season.

Berube wants Umberger to "rely on his defense, rely on his penalty kill, rely on his work ethic." The problem is that just about every other part of Umberger's game has been a mess, too.

His ice time (14:31) is the lowest since his rookie season (13:14) under Ken Hitchcock with the Flyers, in 2005-06. He's on-pace for a career low in shots (106) over 82 games.

The Flyers have given up a total of nine goals on the penalty kill this season and Umberger was on the ice for four of them - two of which were game-winners for the opposition. He also coughed the puck up in his defensive zone on Saturday night, leading to Colorado's nearly crippling third goal of the period - something Berube couched as an accident.

"I've had a couple bad starts in my career," Umberger said. "This might be the worst. It's hard. For me, personally, I've got to ignore it and bring what I can bring to the team everyday. Obviously, they made the trade for a reason."

Hextall said again yesterday a big part of last June's trade was to free up salary-cap space, since Umberger has 2 fewer years on his deal and has nearly the identical cap hit as Hartnell. He just ignored the fact that the deal comparatively weakened the Flyers for each of the next three seasons.

"It was a move we felt that worked for us at the time and I feel still works for us," Hextall said. "You've got to be really careful where you spend money and how much. There's a lot that goes into all decisions."

Slap shots

Andrew MacDonald (right knee) was held off the ice for a fourth straight day. Ron Hextall said MacDonald did not have a setback, but rather his first on-ice session "didn't go as well as we would have hoped." Hextall says MacDonald is still on-track for a return around Black Friday . . . Luke Schenn (left shoulder) skated without his teammates. Hextall said Schenn was doing "better than expected" but definitely will be out through this weekend.

Quotable

Ron Hextall, on why he isn't surprised defenseman Nick Schultz has resurrected his career with the Flyers:

"A lot of people said he was done after last year and I felt like he just had an off year. He was a top 6 player [available] in the summer, without a doubt. I didn't view him as a seventh [spare] guy. Quite honestly, if I viewed him as a seventh guy, we wouldn't have paid him [$1.25 million] what we paid him."

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