So…you guys like Kris Russell?
Kris Russell has quickly become the focal point of the analytics war in the Oiler hockey media. It’s quite the battleground, but it seems like the rhetoric can be a little over the top. Now, I freely admit that I place a much higher focus on results than I do stories, and I love stories.
Still, let’s take a step back and look at what we’ve seen and what has been recorded with regards to Russell so far. He’s played four whole games as an Oiler. This point in his career, should we opt to wipe his slate clean and ignore the 573 other games he has played, is still very much in its infancy. If the position is that what Russell has done before doesn’t count, then we need more than four games.
Here’s what my eyes tell me about Kris Russell as an Oiler. He’s a good skater. He isn’t afraid to handle the puck. He has no problem sacrificing his body blocking shots. His effort level is visually impressive. He appears to have at least a moderate amount of chemistry with Andrej Sekera so far. These are good things!
The NHL is a skating league. You can’t hide out there. There’s a reason why 5’10”, 170 lbs Kris Russell can play in the NHL and it starts with his mobility. That’s an important factor when he’s breaking out of his own zone or when he’s trying to recover in the defensive zone, just like he did when he disrupted a breakaway against the Hurricanes.
Russell has three points in the four games he’s played. He’s a positive player (if you want to lend legitimacy to plus/minus). He’s averaging 21:23 a night for the Oilers. By my eye, he looks good so far and I hope that continues.
But here’s what the very, very early analytics numbers show for Russell. Let’s keep in mind here that “Analytics Guys” aren’t all of the same mind on what the numbers mean, either. Just like the different analysts who give opinions on players and teams around the NHL, there are a wide variety of analytic opinions. So when I say this is what the numbers show, what I really mean to say is this is what I see from the numbers.
When someone is talked about in glowing terms, a fun game to play is to look at their PDO. It’s just a measure that combines on-ice save percentage with on-ice shooting percentage. For some reason, the universe tends to bring that number back to 100 over the long term. But, in the short term? It can be all over the place. From the beginning of his career in 2007-2008 to 2015-2016, Kris Russell played 8645:08 5v5 in the NHL and he had a 100.3 PDO over that period. Totally normal.
After four games with the Oilers, Kris Russell is running at a fever high 107.5 PDO. He looks good by eye? You bet he does! He should look incredible with the percentages driving that number. His on-ice shooting percentage is an outstanding 17%. This just underscores why we need more time to see what Kris Russell is really about. What we’re seeing is not normal. It’s fantastic for the Oilers and it would be amazing to see it continue, but the odds are against it continuing.
We can also see that Russell has the second lowest shot attempt ratio of the five regular defenders Edmonton has played in all four games, with 47.7% CF. For whatever reason, the opposition spends a fair amount of time shooting in Edmonton’s zone when Kris Russell is on the ice. This has been one of the biggest knocks against Russell while he was in Calgary and Dallas.
His reputation for blocked shots is living up to the hype, though. With 14 blocked shots he is double the next highest Oiler defender. In fact, he leads the NHL in that category. I don’t know if that’s a good strategy in the long run, but at least for right now it has the pairing of Sekera-Russell at the highest Fenwick percentage on the Oilers, with Russell holding down a 50.5% FF. Fenwick is similar to Corsi, it’s just all unblocked shot attempts. So all those Russell blocks aren’t counted against him negatively.
Now, one of the ways to get more context out of these numbers is to use WOWYs, or “With or Without You” analysis. Generally, it’s important to see who a player is playing with and how those skaters perform with and without the player in question. In this case, the most important player in the early Oiler season is Connor McDavid. We can see that early on, it looks like McDavid is driving a lot of the positive numbers for Russell (and all Oiler defenders). We need to see more from Russell in different situations so we can get a better sense of his contributions.
So let’s take this conversation back to the beginning before we go too far down the rabbit hole. It’s been just four games. If Oiler fans do not want to accept the hundreds of games he played before coming to the Oilers, then we need to be more patient before getting overly excited about the player. He looks fantastic so far, but there are very compelling reasons to be suspicious. Along the same lines, there are reasons to believe that the Oilers might be able to put Russell in a position to succeed. McLellan’s system might play to his strengths, Sekera might be a natural partner for him, and he might be able to dodge some tough assignments playing behind Klefbom and Larsson. Russell’s performance is not predetermined and we can be hopeful that he’ll continue to be an effective Oiler.
Russell passes the eye test here because he has traits that we look at positively. His speed, his willingness to handle the puck, and the way he sacrifices his body to block shots are all good things. I’m interested in seeing how he does in Edmonton and whether those positive traits can turn into sustained positive results. So far good things are happening, but with a PDO that’s through the roof, I have to admit that I’m happy the Oilers can’t re-sign him until after January. If we ignore everything we’ve seen or recorded up until a couple weeks ago, I need more time to watch Russell in Oiler silks before I make a firm decision.