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. 


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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

    • 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?

  • hockey1099

    Willis wrote a boring stats article? You don’t say. Everyone time I see a stats based article i check out the standings and look to see where the Arizona “money ball” coyotes are in the standings. Yep their still in the basement thank god they committed to a gm who loves advanced stats.

  • 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!!!

  • 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.

  • geeker99

    That stat? Oilers are out chanced 2 to 1 when Russell is on the ice. There are usually 4 other guys out there with him, right?There are still some forwards on this team that play like its an allstar game and feel they only contribute on the score board. Eberle needs to sit a couple out, no way your sitting the assistant captain though and he is playing like he knows it.

  • 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.

  • Finnish Oiler fan in Edmonton89

    I remember Willis writing an article saying that the NHL needs to make a rule banning players from going down on one knee to block shots.

    I just can’t take him seriously…

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.