R.J. UMBERGER ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.
After he had struggled through 67 games this season, coach Craig Berube's patience ran out. He was a healthy scratch last night for the first time this season. That it's been a tough year is an understatement, Umberger saying he's been bothered "more than anyone knows."
Umberger, 32, has nine goals and six assists for a career-worst 15 points. He collected more points than that (18) in a subpar, 48-game, lockout-shortened season in 2012-13.
The Blue Jackets' David Clarkson, recently dealt from Toronto in exchange for a player who will never play hockey again, has actually produced at a better clip than Umberger this season.
"It's been the hardest year of my career," Umberger said. "It's had a bunch of low points in it for different reasons. I've been fighting all year trying to figure it out and it hasn't really come to me. It's just tough right now.
"There's no excuses. You've got to figure it out. If not, you're going to be in the press box. That's the way it goes. I can't blame [Berube] for sitting - I probably deserve it."
This is the second consecutive March that Umberger has been banished to the press box. Last year, with Columbus, Umberger also sat out while the Blue Jackets marched toward the playoffs. Last spring was different, though, since Umberger felt he was playing better and he was a team leader.
"I don't have two feet to stand on right now to disagree," he said. "I've been searching all year to try and figure it out. I think confidence has a lot to do with it. You have some good moments and then, I don't know, you lose it."
He admitted that not playing up to the level of the player for whom he was traded last June adds a layer of frustration. Scott Hartnell, also 32, has 43 points and 16 goals, producing slightly above his career average.
"I'd lie if I said I didn't [notice the trade chatter]," Umberger said. "I know what type of guy Hartnell was in the locker room and how all these guys enjoyed having him here and the success he's had. He's done pretty well in Columbus. So yeah, when things aren't going well, that's added pressure. You feel that.
"I think the biggest thing bothering me is I feel like I've let [general manager Ron] Hextall down. He believed in me bringing me here and I feel like I haven't been the player that he needs."
Why did Craig Berube decide to make a drastic switch to the lineup last night, in Game 68, after the Flyers were all but eliminated from playoff contention?
"Because I just wanted to, that's why," he responded.
The subsequent lineup changes, including moving Wayne Simmonds to play with Sean Couturier and Matt Read, plus the formation of a more prototypical checking line of Ryan White, Zac Rinaldo and Michael Raffl, seem to make all the sense in the world.
The biggest criticism of Berube has been the deployment and usage of players. He seemed to address some of those last night, particularly by skating Couturier with Simmonds.
"It's just a solid line all around," Berube said. "I use them in checking roles, plus they produce for us as of late, I think. I've moved Simmonds around a little bit with [Claude] Giroux, but that [new] line is solid all around. They've got the opportunity to score goals, but they also play good defense."
That still doesn't explain the timing, other than a coach making one last swing at a long-gone playoff position and quite possibly, his job.
"Listen, we've got games left that we need to win," Berube said. "That's what we're looking for now."
The Flyers signed free-agent center Danick Martel, 20, to a 3-year, entry-level contract yesterday. The 5-8 sparkplug is second in Quebec Major Junior League scoring with a staggering 102 points in 63 games in his over-age season for Blainville-Boisbriand.
All 30 teams passed up the opportunity to select Martel in the last two NHL drafts. He is said to play in a mold similar to Buffalo's Tyler Ennis, listed at 5-9. Martel has racked up the points with fellow undrafted teammate Nikita Jevpalovs, who was in Flyers development camp last summer, and since signed with San Jose.
It is a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Flyers, who will lose nothing but one of 50 contract spots and a minimal amount of money if Martel never breaks the NHL roster. The Flyers have hit and missed with other major junior free agents over the years, including Brandon Manning, Jason Akeson and Petr Straka; Shane Harper, Matt Konan and Andrew Johnston did not work out so well.
Martel's team, coached by former NHLer Joel Bouchard, has already captured its division title and has a playoff run ahead. The Flyers will look to sign college free agents in the coming weeks as the NCAA season winds down.
Similarly, the Flyers have also struck gold with college free agents like Matt Read (Bemidji State), Erik Gustafsson (Northern Michigan) and Harry Zolnierczyk (Brown) - but also missed on players like Mike Testwuide (Colorado College), Ben Holmstrom (UMass-Lowell) and Kyle Flanagan (St. Lawrence).