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. 

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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


        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 ?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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?


    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.

  • fasteddy

    I think I’ve figured out part of what makes Remenda so hard to listen to; most colour guys see something and then add insight or comments…he yaps while he’s watching the replay for the first time like the rest of us. Sounds ridiculous listening to him trying to make up something smart as he’s bumbling his way through it.