Kris Russell is slowing, and with him the Oilers’ second defence pairing

Kris Russell had a phenomenal debut with the Edmonton Oilers. Playing on his off-side along with Andrej Sekera on the second pairing,
Russell’s strong play gave the Oilers two quality defence pairings through the
first few games of the season, a luxury the team hasn’t had since Lubomir
Visnovsky and Sheldon Souray were haphazardly discarded at the start of the
rebuild.

Unfortunately for Edmonton, the honeymoon is now over.
Russell’s play has fallen off, and those concerns about the second pairing are
once again worth noting.

Fenwick is like Corsi, but excludes blocked shots – with Russell
specializing in that department, one must give him credit for his ability to
get into shooting lanes, and this way shot blocks aren’t held against him. Chances
are scoring chances, as tabulated by Corsica Hockey based on shot location.

Those first five games were golden, by either metric.

The scoring chance number – with Edmonton outchancing the
opposition by a more than 2:1 ratio when Russell was on the ice – tended to
confirm what fans of the player had said all along. It has long been argued by
stats skeptics that Russell is a superior player in the offensive and defensive
zones, showing more creativity offensively and competitiveness defensively than
the average NHL defender. Naturally, it was to be expected that he’d outperform
his shot metrics.

Yet that Fenwick number was good, too, and the item that
really caught my eye. If that Andrej Sekera/Russell pairing could hang around
near the 50% mark in a second pair role, that would be a big victory for
Edmonton. With Oscar Klefbom/Adam Larsson holding down the top jobs and Darnell
Nurse looking much-improved on the third pair, a 50%-ish second pairing would
be easily good enough to help the Oilers to significant progress.

The most recent five games have been poor, again by either
metric.

The scoring chance number above is simply too bad to
continue, with the Oilers getting out-chanced by a more than 2:1 ratio with
Russell on the ice. Scoring chances are more frequent than goals, but less
common than shots, and their relative rarity means that numbers tend to bounce
around over short segments. The counterargument from Russell skeptics has
always been that over the long-term, spending more time in one’s own end than
in the opposition zone always has a bad outcome. Few defencemen have shown the
ability to dramatically outperform their shot metrics in the goals department
over multiple seasons.  

The more concerning decline is in that Fenwick number. Even
excluding all those shots that Russell blocks, Edmonton is now getting out-shot
by a 54-46 margin, an eight percent spread, when Russell is on the ice. It
seems clear that this stems from his observable weaknesses.

Twitter’s @WheatNOil has been watching and tracking
defencemen performance this season, and spotted two problems with Russell which
have been with the player for much of his NHL career. The first is his ability
to take the puck out of the defensive zone without turning it over to the other
team:

Among regular Oilers defenceman, only Eric Gryba has been
responsible for fewer successful zone exits than Russell. Even Adam Larsson,
whose primary virtues are defensive, has been slightly better. (Digression: Darnell
Nurse has done a good job handling virtually all the puck-moving responsibility
for his pairing, which is an incredibly encouraging sign in his development.)

The other issue is that Russell lets the other team into the
zone with the puck far too often:

A higher number on that chart means that opponents gain the
Oilers’ end with the puck more often. Russell’s number sticks out like a sore
thumb; he’s the only Edmonton defenceman who allows opponents to carry the puck
in on more than half of their entries, thereby increasing the likelihood of a
shot or scoring chance against.

These aren’t new trends; they are long-running structural
problems with Russell’s game. For all his observable strengths – he retrieves
pucks, he gets in shooting lanes, he’s competitive defensively and reasonably
creative in the offensive zone – he doesn’t have a good track record in
transition.

Dimitri Filipovic tracked zone exits and entries in the
playoffs last year, and Russell showed these same problems in Dallas. He was, by
far
, the worst Stars defenceman at preventing opponents from gaining his
zone. He was also the worst Stars defenceman at exiting
his own end
of the ice with the puck.

Five games in, Russell’s considerable strengths were
outshining those structural weaknesses. Over the last five games, as over the
majority of his NHL career, that hasn’t happened.