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

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.

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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.

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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

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

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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

Dimitri Filipovic tracked zone exits and entries in the
playoffs last year, and Russell showed these same problems in Dallas. He was, by
, 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.

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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. 

  • Jordan88

    Dear Russell:

    Pay no mind to the negative media, they like to go after Our Defensemen. With fancy stats that mean nothing.

    Were 7-2-1 and you apparently play like crap. Us fans don’t care, Stack em and rack em.

  • I am Batman

    This is unbelievable. Clearly the Oilers Nation writers have their favourites….

    Say what you may about Corsi, Fenwick and stats that you like (or dislike like +|-) but the truth is that Russell has been a welcome addition and he hasn’t costed the Oilers any games.

    No articles are written about Eberle and his lack of engagement or how Klefbom is not really a 1-2 D, and that his giveaways have costed goals and games.

    I will venture that all Oilers are playing really well except:

    – Eberle

    – Klefbom

    – Lucic

    Except the above 3, everyone has played VERY well for the position they play. Russell is a 4-5 D, he has done that really well.

    When can we get an article about Eberle sucking as much as he has lately?

    • Gravis82

      Eberle is not playing any different than he always has. While we expect more from him that is true, he is more/less the same eberle.

      Russel however was not playing like he normally has, he was much much better. Thus the questions was would it continue. Looks like the answer is a no. There is no opinion in this type of analysis, its just observation.

      • AJ88

        So you have written off Russell based on his last five games? If he is good in the next five games….

        I am not sure if you enjoy watching the game of hockey or you just analyze it to prove yourself right…

        • GCW

          Wondering and writing off aren’t the same thing.

          It is beyond foolish to ignore recent performance that is consistent with his career performance in favour of a few games that really weren’t consistent with his career performance.

          We all hope Russell does well, including Willis. There is nothing wrong with testing whether Russell is actually doing well.

          If ignorance is what you seek, Donald Trump will welcome you with open arms.

    • Anton CP

      When I saw the title without reading the writer’s name that I’ve already guessed it must be JW.

      Russell is one of stats boy’s nightmare that the plays defy the logic of numbers. The truth about some new fancy stats that sometimes won’t work simply because it is not complete. If numbers don’t work then figure out a new number to measure why it works.

    • tileguy

      I’m with you there, does not belong on the top line, his shot is pathetic and can not keep up. Does not screen, hasn’t been holding the puck down low and has done nothing about keeping the flies off 97

  • McRaj

    JW is a big analytics guy, so this article was to be expected. He was also anti-Nurse so I’m curious to see if he goes back on his words regarding Nurse if he continues to progress as the year goes.

    Also, Nurse absolutely should get PP Time. That doesn’t mean he is moving up the Depth Chart, but Sekera and Klefbom on the point is not working right now, let’s see what Nurse has.

    • I reject the idea that I’m anti-Nurse. This is what I wrote in August:

      What we do know is that for the most part, defencemen who played a lot at the same age as Nurse while a) not scoring much and b) getting out-shot don’t end up having long careers as top-pairing options. Vlasic is the exception, and did it in tough minutes on an excellent team, which naturally tends to depress things like relative Corsi. My guess would be that Nurse eventually settles in as a solid second-pair defenceman, but at this stage there’s a wide variety of possible outcomes. We’ll know a lot more a year from now.

      If Nurse turns into a good second-pairing defenceman, that’s a quality player. Especially since the Oilers haven’t had a mean (in the best possible sense) defenceman that good since Sheldon Souray.

      • whateverhappenedtoearledwards

        I recall a bizarre article you wrote about Nurse a couple of year back. You cherry picked a bunch of stats looking at Dmen 6’4″ or taller drafted in the top 7 and concluded that since Nurse didn’t make the NHL in his draft+2 year he was unlikely to amount to much.

        • Your memory isn’t very good.

          The article in question was written in December 2015, was about Griffin Reinhart, and referenced top-15 picks 6’2″ or taller (with the idea being to narrow the field down to big defenceman, given that size is such a key attribute at the position).

          The conclusion was that for those players, it’s important to be regular NHL’ers by their Draft+4 season, because there aren’t many examples of those highly drafted defencemen turning into top-four NHL’ers if they aren’t at least in the majors by their fourth year of post-draft development.

  • I think if someone wants to defend Kris Russell they should go with something like “Yeah, but he’s been forced to play the right side as a left-handed shot.” And they would have enough reasonable doubt to survive any debate a bit longer.

    Unfortunately, it doesnt matter if Russell would be more effective on his correct side since he isnt going to replace anybody on the left until injury strikes.

  • whateverhappenedtoearledwards

    I hope that Russel’s sats improve for all the obvious reasons. But also so we don’t have to endure a Willis article every couple of weeks reminding us how bad Russel is, like the endless Korpokoski articles last year.

  • OilersGM

    The next article on defence will be the new golden boy Larsson isn’t so golden especially after the first goal against the leafs. He was mesmerized by the puck he forgot Kadri on the back door.

  • TruthHurts98

    Klefbom is looking utterly lost defensively more often than not. Talbot has bailed him out a few times, but the first Ranger goal was unacceptable. Can’t wait for Davidson to get back. Russell is fine and has far more compete than Klefbom. Maybe Oscar just needs to find his groove, hope he does sooner than later.

  • OilersGM

    TMaC. You know better. Play your best players in the last 2 minutes to bring home the victory or at least a point. Terrible coaching…
    And one more thing Taylor Hall could’ve played defence tonight and would’ve been better then Larsson!!!

    • No, they aren’t, which is why I chuckled at all the anti-statsers taking victory laps after Russell’s first game with the Oilers.

      The problem is that Russell has hundreds of games under his belt, and there’s very little to suggest that he’s an effective second pair defenceman (esp. on his off-side) over that span.

  • S cottV

    I think Willis will be proven right, after a more steady dose of heavy weight opponents.

    The Kings – for example, will come in and work his corner to death.

    Still – his presence offers some flexibility, until injuries and or a trade can be worked out.

    We need a rh d man who can shoot and contribute to the pp. Russell doesn’t shoot very well.

    Not a bad – one year, stop gap pick up though.

  • TruthHurts98

    Eberle and Lucic belong on the 3rd line. They both cost the team again. Poor Connor has two useless anchors on his line, switch centres, him with Draistail. I can’t stand to watch Eberle anymore, he’s clueless. -4 tonight and looks like Yak out there defensively. Lucic is getting out muscled constantly. Another stinker, 3 game losing streak. They will have to get downright lucky and play far better to even get a point on this trip.

  • Shameless Plugger

    The problem I find with most “fancy-staters” is they don’t couple the stats with what they see. The “eye tes”t isn’t the be all end all either. However coupling them together may give you a solid perspective on a player. One side cannot dismiss the other and expect their position to be the one perceived as correct.