R.J. Umberger spent 2016-17 watching from the sidelines, but he'll get a chance to complete a comeback after signing a tryout with Dallas. He's not the only veteran to attempt such a comeback in the past decade.
Not since the final day of the 2015-16 campaign has R.J. Umberger suited up in the NHL, but the 35-year-old is getting his shot at a comeback as the new season approaches.
While a number of teams are still working on locking up their own restricted free agents, it was reported Friday by Dallas Stars’ Inside Edge’s Mark Stepneski that Umberger has signed a tryout agreement and will be heading to Texas for training camp in September.
The confirmation of Umberger’s spot with the Stars is surprising, but not because he’s incapable of cracking an NHL roster. Rather, the most shocking part of him being brought into Dallas for training camp is that it comes after a season in which Umberger didn’t play at all. That’s to say that unlike others attempting NHL comebacks, Umberger didn’t have a job overseas to keep himself fresh. Instead, he spent the year away from the game on a notably competitive level.
However, he may have had a connection that helped him land the tryout. Umberger, who spent a decade and nearly 800 games in the NHL from 2005-06 onward, suited up for the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets during his NHL tenure. In his rookie season with the Flyers, Umberger skated under coach Ken Hitchcock, and the two were reunited in 2008-09 as members of the Blue Jackets. So, Hitchcock, who was named Stars coach shortly after the past season closed, may have had a hand in bringing Umberger aboard.
For Umberger, an NHL return would come after some disappointing years late in his career. Signed to a five-year, $23-million in September 2011 after his fourth-straight 20-goal season, Umberger’s game, at least statistically, began to deteriorate in 2012-13. Over his next four seasons, Umberger managed just 37 goals and 78 points in 228 games, falling from top-six to bottom-line minutes. The final year of the contract was bought out by the Flyers, who re-acquired Umberger in 2014.
Umberger completing a comeback after a year away from the game may sound near impossible, but he’s not the first player to attempt such a feat. Over the past 10 years, a number of notable players have taken time off — some more than others — only to return to the NHL shortly thereafter. Here are five players who’ve made big league comebacks after stepping away:
Simon Gagne, Boston Bruins, 2014-15
Only 16 players scored more than Gagne from 1999-00 to 2006-07, but just as Gagne was starting to enter his prime, he started to deal with injury woes. A veteran of more than 500 games by the time he had completed the 2006-07 campaign, injuries would limit Gagne to only 297 games over the next six seasons, and following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, with Gagne’s once top-tier offensive game starting to fade, he decided to walk away.
But after spending the entire 2013-14 campaign outside of the game, Gagne’s name popped up again as NHL training camps started to approach in August 2014, and it was the Boston Bruins who scooped up the then-34-year-old winger. Gagne was far from a top-liner in Beantown, but he scored three goals and four points in 23 games. However, after the loss of his father in December 2014, Gagne decided to leave the Bruins and officially announced his retirement in September 2015.
Tim Thomas, Florida Panthers, 2013-14
Thomas’ journey to becoming one of the greatest goaltenders in the NHL was outstanding.
A journeyman who bounced around Europe and the minor leagues, Thomas eventually cracked the Bruins’ roster as a full-time starter at 32. By 33, he had backstopped his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation, he captured the trophy in 2008-09 at 34, repeated the feat and captured the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010-11 as a 36-year-old, spent one more campaign in Boston and then, just like that, he was gone. After losing a seven-game, first-round playoff series to the Washington Capitals in 2011-12, Thomas announced he was taking a year away from the game, and he did exactly that.
Subsequently, Thomas’ contract was traded to the Islanders, but he didn’t play a single game in New York, instead sitting out the campaign before deciding to make his return in 2013-14. And he did so on a tryout contract with the Florida Panthers. Thomas had a shaky year, though, and was traded to the Dallas Stars in March 2014. Thomas played out the remainder of his one-year contract in Dallas, but hung his skates up for good once the campaign closed.
Dominic Moore, New York Rangers, 2013-14
Every player on this list had his reasons for stepping away from the game, but Moore’s decision had to come after some absolutely heartbreaking news.
In 2011-12, Moore was plying his trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a middle-six center, and doing so fairly well, when the trade deadline approached. With the Lightning out of a playoff spot, the decision was made to ship Moore off to the contending San Jose Sharks. However, after finishing out the regular season in San Jose, Moore’s time with the Sharks was cut short only three games into the post-season. It was later revealed that his wife, Katie, had been diagnosed with liver cancer, leading Moore to step away from San Jose and the game. With his contract up, Moore took the entire 2012-13 season off to be with his wife. Sadly, she passed in January 2013.
Moore returned to the NHL the following season, earning himself a one-year deal with the New York Rangers, where he put together a six-goal, 18-point season. At the NHL’s end-of-season awards, Moore was honored with the Masterton Trophy for his perseverance and dedication to the game.
Claude Lemieux, San Jose Sharks, 2008-09
As the end of the 2002-03 campaign approached, it seemed as though Lemieux was putting a bow on what had been an impressive NHL career. Lemieux was a veteran of nearly 1,200 games with 379 goals and 785 points to his name, not to mention four Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy. But at 37, there simply wasn’t an NHL club willing to take a shot on him. He did find some work overseas, though, putting together a brief stint in the Swiss League before retiring ahead of the 2004-05 campaign.
Over the next four seasons, Lemieux would remain active around the sports world, but he remained outside of competitive hockey. But by 2008, Lemieux was getting the itch and made clear that he was attempting a comeback.
First, he signed on with the Asia League’s China Sharks, made his way onto the AHL’s Worcester Sharks by November 2008 and was officially inked to a two-way deal with the San Jose Sharks days before the start of 2009. He was back in the NHL in January 2009, nearly six years after his last game with the Stars, and suited up in 18 regular season games and one post-season contest. He retired for good following the 2008-09 season.
Owen Nolan, Phoenix Coyotes, 2006-07
The lost season in 2004-05 threw a wrench into the plans of many an NHL veteran, but the one year on the sidelines subsequently turned into two for Nolan, who was entering his early 30s and had battled injuries for a few seasons. Nolan used the lockout season to recoup and further used the 2005-06 campaign to allow his knees to heal up, but began to get inquiries about a return to action around the time the playoffs were set to start the year following the lockout. Nolan remained a free agent, however, but got his comeback rolling when he signed a one-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes ahead of the 2006-07 season.
In his first season back, Nolan was a solid middle-six winger, and his 16 goals and 40 points were the both the third-best marks on the Coyotes. It was proof Nolan still had more to give, and he would proceed to sign a one-year deal with the Calgary Flames ahead of 2007-08 before signing a two-year contract with the Minnesota Wild ahead of 2008-09.
All told, Nolan’s comeback spanned four seasons and saw him produce 73 goals and 150 points in 285 games, but his career came to a close after a brief stint in the Swiss League in 2010-11.
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