Robbie Russo was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders – but in their hurry to fill organizational needs on the blue line, they filled up roster spots that could have potentially been his by now.
The 22 year old right shot blue liner, who comes from a town about an hour west of Chicago, is coming off his final season of NCAA play. He’s been a serviceable two-way defenseman for the entirety of his NCAA career, earning the captain’s C and refining his offensive game to give himself a bit of an edge to compensate for being a bit on the smaller side; knocks that involve a half-missed season for academic problems and a lack of stand-out ‘oomph’, though, make him expendable to the Islanders in the long run.
Russo becomes a UFA on August 15th (that would be tomorrow) if the Islanders don’t sign him by tonight, which they’ve made pretty clear won’t happen – so could he fit in with any of the teams here at the Nations Network?
Pros: On the plus side, Russo has always been considered a good all-around player with decent possession skills, something that many of the NCAA’s most coveted offensive defensemen (hello, Justin Schultz, hello Joey LaLeggia) have struggled with in the past. As a result, the improved offensive play seen out of Russo in his final years of NCAA play – which saw him come in second to Mike Reilly in NCAA scoring among defensemen with 15 goals and 41 points in 40 regular season games last year – is only an added bonus. You’d hope he has the upside to be a player like Trevor van Riemsdyk is becoming with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Had Matt Donovan not succeeded with the Islanders, Russo would maybe still have a spot open for him in New York’s depth chart. The two blue liners followed a fairly similar projection path through the NCAA, although Russo took an extra year to reach where he has (and Donovan is a bit more solid than Russo); as a lower or middle pairing defenseman who has scoring upside and a decent amount of defensive responsibility, Russo is a good option.
Cons: It’s hard to ignore academic issues; both Patrick McNally and Max Everson quickly discovered that their year away from the ice would prove too much for the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, and Russo did miss half a season for academic problems of his own. Being named captain following a missed chunk of the season prior speaks well to a player’s potential, but some things are hard to overcome regardless.
There’s also the concern that Russo won’t be able to replicate his offensive success at the NHL level, which leaves him as little more than a non-detrimental extra defenseman. On a good day, you may get scoring from him, but a lack of ability to really shine in any particular role could leave teams without a spot for Russo in their lineup.
For perspective, Canucks Army’s Josh Weissbock created a fun chart looking at NHL success rates for NCAA players with similar attributes to Russo, looking mostly back at players who would have had a chance to succeed at the NHL level by now:
Looking at NCAA players from the most recent years out of this list (to sort of account for the era we’re playing in), we’ve got a downside of Reid Cashman – who was 21 in 2004 and never saw NHL ice – and an upside of Paul Martin, who’s looking to help out the San Jose Sharks next season. Our probable comparable is likely Jack Hillen, who was a serviceable blue liner with some scoring upside for a few years on the Islanders a few years back.
Who should sign him?
The first two teams that came to mind were Vancouver – who just lost Adam Clendening in the Brandon Sutter trade – and the Toronto Maple Leafs; both teams could use a good two-way blue liner on a cheap deal as they head into the upcoming season. Russo has four years of NCAA experience to speak for his ability to slip into the lineup, something that van Riemsdyk did well with the Blackhawks last year despite concerns regarding his size – if Russo can replicate that success for one of these two teams, he’ll be well served.
In Vancouver, Russo serves as an immediate replacement for Clendening in multiple areas. They’re both right shots, and both put up impressive scoring numbers while in college – although that may ruin Jim Benning’s stealth tank, and we can’t have that.
In Toronto, Russo is yet another player with building block value for what’s become a scorched earth rebuild; he’s got more offensive upside than Petter Granberg or Tom Nilsson, but would virtually serve in the same role as the two. The Leafs also just dealt away Tim Erixon in the Phil Kessel trade, although he’s a left shot and Russo is a right – and that’s something that Mike Babcock has been known to nitpick about in the past.
If Russo needs a year or two of AHL experience, though, he’d make a good fit on either the Oilers roster or the Flames roster.
In Edmonton, Justin Schultz is on a one year deal that has an air of ‘prove it’ surrounding it; it’s well known that the former NCAA free agent knows how to drive offense, but had trouble picking up the pieces in his own zone. There’s a risk of Joey LaLeggia turning into the same player, which creates a surplus of a problem Edmonton doesn’t need to have – and as Andrew Ference ages, Nikita Nikitin finally gets fired off into the sun somewhere, and Darnell Nurse ascends to take his throne, a depth blue liner with good all-around skills and decent scoring upside could be just what the Pacific Division club needs.
Calgary is in a similar situation. With their failure to re-sign David Schlemko in the off-season, there’s the assumption that the Flames aren’t looking for the depth he provided right at the moment – but Russo provides more upside than Schlemko at a younger age, and an entry-level deal could get his foot in the door with the club within a year or two in a bottom-four pairing role with potential power play benefits to his game.
The only team here at the Nations Network that Russo probably won’t benefit, of course, is the Winnipeg Jets. There’s already an insane surplus of right shot defensemen in their system – Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Paul Postma are all right shots, leaving no room to add yet another right shot to the lineup (and a preference in Winnipeg to keep players shooting on the side they play the blue line). There’s the hope that by the time Russo was ready to work his way into the lineup, one or two of those players would be gone, but Byfuglien is the only one of the four who could walk out the door – which makes Winnipeg a less than desirable landing point for the Notre Dame defenseman.
Outside of the Nations Network, it’s already been confirmed that the Rangers aren’t looking to pick Russo up – the biggest rumors seem to be circulating in favor of Chicago (where Russo has ties to Notre Dame through free agent signee Vincent Hinostroza), but the Patrick Kane situation could leave the club with cap uncertainty that makes them hesitate to bring on more free agents. The Arizona Coyotes could use a right shot defenseman, but they’re still tinkering with their very young defensive corps; all in all, Vancouver and Toronto seem like the best landing points for Russo across the board.