The Case Against Kris Russell Part 1

Alright. I’ve been overly damned cheery for weeks on this site. I think it’s a pretty much non-stop stream of happiness since the season began, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Oilers are on the verge of doing something incredibly unadvisable: Extending Kris Russell. It makes so little sense for so many reasons, and yet here we are. Let’s have a conversation about this.

This is part 1 of 2 articles that will talk about the prospects of extending Kris Russell. Today the focus is on the player himself and where he fits on the club. Tomorrow the second article will run discussing the various reason why extending Russell is a truly awful idea. 

Let’s start with the cold hard truth. Kris Russell is Edmonton’s worst defender.

I’ve already lost a segment of readers and I accept that. For some people, saying the obvious is offensive and there are others that just can’t acknowledge the truth. It’s understandable that the statement may seem shocking, although it’s dangerous to come to any other conclusion than the one stated above.

I know that Kris Russell skates really well. I know that he blocks lots of shots and is always willing to sacrifice his body. There are times when he uses those skills and good things happen on the ice as a direct result. It’s fantastic that he can skate with the puck like he did during a 4v4 recently and create an opportunity for the team.

The problem with Russell, and it’s what makes him so thoroughly dangerous to the Oilers, is that the things he does well are really noticeable but what he does poorly often goes by invisibly. For example, he will block two shots in a shift and retrieve the puck in the corner, take some strides, then move the puck out of the zone. The eyes catch all of that really well. What they are not generally trained to see is that Russell’s side was targeted by the attacking team, he gave them unobstructed entry to the zone by giving a 10-foot gap, and after he threw the puck up the ice it was immediately picked up by the attacking team and brought back in again.

This imaginary sequence of events I’ve used as an example happens very frequently with Russell and it’s bearing out in all of the non-traditional stats we can get out hands on. Once you start looking for entries allowed and successful transitions back up to offense, there is one Oiler defender who starts standing out in the least positive way possible: Kris Russell. It’s then impossible to unsee it.

Every player has a Risk/Reward benefit. Every single one. It’s all about what you create minus what you give up. For a player like Dustin Byfuglien he’s constantly derided for weaknesses in his own zone, but he more than makes up for them with his impact in the offensive zone. Someone like Adam Larsson we recognize has limits in the offensive zone but he’s stronger defensively.

Kris Russell, however, is neither strong offensively nor stellar defensively. This is a bad combination, but it’s actually his impact on offense that should be most alarming. Of course, it’s the WAY in which he chooses to defend that negatively impacts his ability to transition back up to offense. No matter which way you look at it, Kris Russell is a ticking time-bomb for the team.

Edmonton has had seven defensemen play at least 200 minutes 5v5 this season. Here is where Russell ranks of those seven in some key statistical categories.

Corsi For per 60: 7th (50.03 CF/60)

Corsi Against per 60: 7th (56.36 CA/60)

Corsi For Percentage: 7th (47.0%)

Fenwick For per 60: 7th (38.34 FF/60)

Fenwick Against per 60: 6th (39.87 FA/60) *This should be one of the stats he performs best in because he’s a shot blocker. Fenwick counts only unblocked shot attempts.*

Fenwick For Percentage: 7th (49.0%)

Shots For per 60: 7th (28.18 SF/60)

Shots Against per 60: 3rd (28.37 SA/60) *Good Job!*

Shots For Percentage: 7th (49.8%)

Scoring Chances For per 60: 7th (18.96 SCF/60)

Scoring Chances Against per 60: 3rd (19.98 SCA/60)

Scoring Chance For Percentage: 5th (48.69%)

Offensive Zone Faceoff Percentage: 4th (33.7%)

Defensive Zone Faceoff percentage: 3rd (32.7%)

On-Ice Shooting Percentage: 2nd (10.2%)

Save Percentage: 2nd (94.59%)

PDO: 2nd (104.8)

tmi

So that’s a pretty big wall of information. Here are the key takeaways for me: Russell is last or next to last in every single shot metric we have available. In Scoring Chances against he’s doing an OK job of staying in the middle of the pack, but the team also generates the lowest number of chances for when he’s on the ice. He’s also getting a pretty even distribution of zone starts so I can’t blame his low numbers on bizarre usage.

At the same time as all of that, Kris Russell has a stellar PDO. Our eyes should be in love with Kris Russell and our brains should associate him with success because he is riding a wave of percentages that are covering up his deficiencies. In the four years prior to joining the Oilers, Kris Russell’s on-ice save percentage was 91.74%. I think it’s highly unlikely that at 29 years of age Kris Russel has figured out how to make his goalie jump to 94.59%. The inventor of PDO himself (Brian King) says that the stat was created because the Oilers were extending players with high numbers and dealing away for pennies the ones with low numbers. Teams mistake great PDO for great talent then make awful decisions. 

There are things that no metric can tell you, like how a player is in the dressing room, what kind of character they have, etc. All of those things are inputs. They are tools that the player has available to help him/her get the job done. The metrics help inform us as to how well the job is getting done. In Russell’s case, we have a lot of information that says the team struggles to move the puck in the right direction when he’s on the ice. 

Where does he fit on the blue line? If you had to keep one player moving forward, Russell or _____, how many Oiler defenders do you go through before you keep Russell? He makes it through the entire list for me.

  • D-rek

    I have not commented on this site in a long time, but on this I have to.

    Typically I think articles by this writer are informative, and try to employ common sense along with analytics (which can be hard at times for traditionalists). But this article can not be classified that way.

    Kris Russell has been a key component of the Oilers success this year. The numbers can say whatever they want (I have time for advanced stats, in the right proportions, and used in conjunction with the eye test they can be valuable) but if they say Kris Russell is Edmonton’s worst defenseman, they are just plain wrong.

    There have been a lot of bad defenseman on this team over the last decade, it has been easy to see. Russell’s ability to get the puck out of the zone has been sorely missed over the years, and a welcome addition this year. Just having a player who doesn’t panic in his own end and make horrible giveaways (J.Schultz anyone?) is a major improvement over what we have had here.

    This is clearly a case of the eye test overruling the numbers test. Like I said I have time for analytics, but teams need to be able to identify cases when maybe the numbers are wrong. Advanced stats are good to have, but they aren’t the only thing that matters. Eyes matter too. Russell may not be a top pairing defenseman, but he has been a major improvement over what we’ve had here for far too long.

    • passelin

      The fact he is characterized as the ‘worst’ by these measures is relative and does not take away from your point that he is an improvement from last year.

      To my eye the top 6 have all been quite good and it’s not way off base to say that of the top 6 he has been the ‘least good’ – still good enough to me.

      I think we will find in part 2 that the point is that Russel is not the right fit in terms of cap distribution and value for dollar.

  • Derzie

    Stats people hate Kris because he proves them wrong. Happened in Calgary, happening in Edmonton. Stats-tears are the best tears. Stats are valuable as a tool but not as a religion. The worshippers are the ones that I’m talking about. People with perspective use eyes & stats. Those without write Kris Russell hate pieces.