Imagine the timing.
Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin is expected to miss the rest of the season because of a severe knee injury. That puts the club in the market for a top-six forward with the NHL trade deadline less than three weeks away.
And right there in Consol Energy Center Tuesday night was a possible answer -- Columbus winger R.J. Umberger, a Plum native who is putting together perhaps his best season with 19 goals, 38 points going into the game and getting accolades from Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel about his leadership skills.
That might sound like a great fit, but don't hold your breath.
"It seems like an annual thing, and I don't pay attention to it," Umberger said of any speculation he might get traded to his hometown team. "I don't listen. I concentrate on where I'm playing. I love Columbus, the team. I have one thing on my mind, and that's to get to the playoffs. We want to be there so bad."
Umberger, 28, makes $3.75 million a season, but is signed through 2011-12, after which he is eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Because Malkin, and his salary-cap hit, are expected back next season, it would be easier for the Penguins to acquire a top-six forward who is a "rental." General manager Ray Shero could opt instead to pursue someone signed beyond this season, but it could be difficult for anyone to pry Umberger away from Columbus -- if he is not untouchable.
Umberger enjoys trips to play in his hometown. He stopped by Umberger Performance, a fitness center in Robinson he and his cousin Scott opened about a year ago. And he got his first look at Consol Energy Center.
"It's beautiful," he said of the new arena, which replaced Mellon/Civic Arena, where he grew up watching the Penguins.
"It's hard for me because I love the Igloo, but this is beautiful. They did everything first-rate. This is probably the nicest building I've seen so far. I thought everything was so bright and so fresh and new. This visiting locker room is the best in the league by far.
"And it's nice to see just the little touches they did, like adding the past players in the hallway [in a mural outside the home locker room]. To me, that's special because of all the history, what I grew up watching."
Columbus doesn't get to Pittsburgh very often, once a season at most. So Arniel almost couldn't believe the luck of the timing of the Blue Jackets visit.
Arniel, despite being an Ontario native, grew up a staunch Steelers fan -- he said he was enamored of their early championship teams, the Steel Curtain and the fact they weren't the Dallas Cowboys. He was hoping he would be in town when they held a Super Bowl parade.
That didn't happen, of course, because the Steelers lost to Green Bay
While the Steelers drew a boatload of attention recently, including inside the Penguins dressing room, one guy was busy tracking one of his hometown teams for a whole different reason.
"I hear the light at the end of the tunnel is coming against Detroit, but we'll see," Penguins forward Mike Rupp said of the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers, who set an NBA futility mark Monday with a 99-96 loss against Dallas that was their 25th in a row.
The Cavaliers' tumble can be traced to the defection of LeBron James, who bolted from his home-state team to sign with Miami. Rupp called it a "catch-22," of not winning because of a lack of stars, and a lack of stars because the team isn't built to win.
"They're willing to spend money; they just can't get the guys to come right now," Rupp said.
"So I guess they've got to start with the draft. Unfortunately, it's not a good draft."
The Penguins played without yet another injured forward, winger Chris Kunitz, who participated in the game-day skate but sat out and is day to day because of an unspecified injury. The other injured forwards are Sidney Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (knee), Mark Letestu (knee) Arron Asham (undisclosed) and Mike Comrie (hip).
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 9, 2011 5:45 AM