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.

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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
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:

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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
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.

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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. 


    • 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.

    • I don’t necessarily see Nurse as a long-term PP guy, but his early season work has been extremely encouraging (especially given the amount of the puckmoving load he’s carried).

      He was good over the first ~10 games last year, before he got thrown into the deep end; I hope they’re patient with him this time and let him have some prolonged success before promoting him up the depth chart.

      • Cain

        Jonathan,

        Why can’t you see Nurse evolving into a power play guy?

        What are you seeing in his game that would prevent him,long-term,from being effective there ?

      • 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.

  • stonedtodeath61

    Zone exit stats are as expected, Nurse should have the most and Gryba the fewest. Nurse should be skating with the puck, he’s the full package and Gryba should be passing off to him. The kid is going to be a great one. Gryba is a good security blanket, allowing him to go with confidence.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Russell has a one year contract and he has been good and bad, it will probably continue for another 80 games or so. (Hopefully more) He is giving us depth on defence which does not show up on fenwick or Corsi, it is also possible that next to him giving us some depth through the season we can dump him as a rental at the deadline and possible get something for nothing.

  • 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.

  • BobbyCanuck

    Was Russell the best Dman available this summer? No he was not

    Was he the best Dman that we could get our hands on? Quite possibly

    Did he cost us prospects and picks? No he did not

    Is his contract going to make him untradeable? No it will not

    If Davidson had not gotten injured, would it have changed the make-up of the D corp? Yes

    Injuries always happen to every club, how would we be doing with an injured Davidson, and no Russell?

    Chia made a smart move in getting him

    Our 7-2-1 could very well have been the opposite.

    You do not win a play-off position in October, but you can certainly lose a play-off position in October.

  • Shameless Plugger

    Seeing as I’m no good at fancy stats, I was curious what the corsi and fenwick numbers show about having a guy who can slot Nurse into his proper developmental spot?

  • 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.

  • bleedingcoppernblue

    Good thing is despite some of his weaknesses russell is an nhl defenseman. We have 8 of them which is great for competition when 2 more are healthy and can be interchanged… A massive improvement over last year and not a long term commitment. We dont have to keep russell but he is buying time for players like Nurse to develop confidence lower down the order. That is worth its weight in gold and we are seeing those benefits nightly.

  • Jay (not J)

    So the other team gets more low percentage garbage shots when he’s on the ice than the Oilers do. The guy’s +6 in actual goals. How do you win hockey games anyway?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Petrolero

    The way nurse is playing I wonder if putting Russell with gryba or Benning, moving sekera to the right and bumping nurse to the second pair would improve the pairings. I remember articles suggesting Russell would struggle because he was being put too high up the batting order specially in Calgary.

  • passenger

    I didn’t like the signing cause I didn’t like the player, but ya dance with the one that brung ya. I hope he sticks around the OK-to-Pretty Good range that I feel he’s capable of.

    • DK0

      Except Calgary has been a tire fire of a Corsi team for years… So they invented a stat that they are bottom quarter of the league to prove that they are good?

  • Borbs

    What happens if Nurse proves capable enough to slot in on the second pair, thus dropping Russell to the third pair? Will those reduced minutes help Russell succeed? There’s still a lot of time for this to play out over the season, and I’m willing to bet Chiarelli won’t be gunshy at the deadline, if the Oilers are in a playoff spot, to make a deal to improve the team and hold onto that spot. Other than that, JW, what do you think the Oilers need to do to improve the second pair, either internally or externally?

  • Could you solve the issue by promoting Nurse for good play and using Russell in a primarily defensive/PP specialist role?

    Run:
    Klefbom-Larsson
    Nurse-Sekera
    Russell-Gryba/Davidson/Benning

    PP options of Klefbom Sekera on the first PP, Russell/Benning on the second PP (an actual hard shot)

    It’s not as if our PP can actually get more putrid.

  • Nickel

    I respect the fancy stats because I think you always want to have as much information as possible, but it feels like an american political debate whenever the two sides square off these days.

    I still feel like “fancy” stats have issues with subjectivity. Defining a clean zone exit for example… or perhaps a “quality” scoring chance works better…

    I’m waiting for someone who swears by advanced stats to watch a player and admit that they thought that the player looked good, even thought the “advanced” stats suggest otherwise. It happens in every other area statistics are relied on. When I see a little more of that, I think I’ll be able to get behind the stats crowd a little more.

    Just a quick clarification question: Do the stats suggest that Klefbom has been our best defenceman through 10 games? I like Klef, and Nurse for that matter, but my eyes tell me that neither of them have been our “best” defenceman though the first 10 games. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’ve played good, but i think Russel and Larsson have been our top two D.

  • Gravis82

    We went from tracking goals and assists in the early 20th century to….tracking goals and assists in the 21st century. Efforts to measure more than that always seem to be faced with stiff opposition.

    There have been alot of advances made since then to be sure (i.e. commercial airplanes, vehicles, we went to the moon, we are going to mars, running water etc). Perhaps we should just get with the times and embrace new perspectives, seems to have worked out so far.

  • 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.