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.

  • Not a First Tier Fan

    Normally I like your stuff Matt but I can’t see it on this one. The Oilers clearly are better at getting the puck out of their own zone with Russell on the ice. Where is the stat for that?

    It’s something the team has really struggled with during the decade of darkness. To have a defender now that not only blocks shots but is able to competently get the biscuit out of their own end is a huge plus.

    For some reason stats aren’t favorable to Russell… Just one of the reasons why I think the science still hasn’t fully developed yet.

    • If they are better at getting the puck out why do they shoot on opposition so much less with Russell and why are opponents taking so many attempts?

      Also WheatNOil at TheOilersRig.com has the defensive tracking information if you’re interested in looking at it. I suggest you do.

      • Not a First Tier Fan

        So I took the bait and looked at TheOilersRig.com. Good site. Due to limited time I looked at the write-up for the Chicago game. Against the Leafs and Arizona the whole team sucked so I don’t need stats to tell me that. More – how he played against one of the best teams in the league would be a good indicator I think…

        Anyways, from what I gathered in that website Russell had a pretty good game that night. From my point of view that kind of contradicted your theory…

        Again – usually I like your stuff Matt but I just think you’re off-base on this one..

  • @Hallsy4

    “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.” Just because you type something, doesn’t make it true. Also, in the context you used this pretend example in, I’m pretty sure people would notice when that happened. This whole article just bothers me.

  • fisherprice

    Kris Russell’s a mixed bag. I’m fine with having him this year, but I’m not a big fan of extending him. He’s an NHL player, clearly, but continues to be miscast in the top 4 – in Edmonton, in Dallas, and in Calgary. He’s a perfectly fine third pairing, left side D who does some good work on the penalty kill. The problem is everyone wants to play him near or more than 20 minutes a game, in all situations. The other shoe will drop at some point this season. This has happened to Russell everywhere he’s gone, and it would be foolish to think that’s going to suddenly change this season.

    His biggest contribution this year has been eating minutes so players like Darnell Nurse or Matt Benning don’t have to play over their heads and can iron out their kinks as developing players. At the end of the day, even if he’s a top 4 LHD, which many seem to believe, Klefbom and Sekera are already much better in this role than Russell and Nurse will likely be pretty soon. We need an offensive minded top 4 right handed D and Russell, ain’t that, no matter what you think of him.

    • Hrkac Circus

      100% agree with this.

      I don’t understand why it’s so hard for some to take a balanced view of Russell. He’s a risk/reward d-man who has value in a limited role. Hard to argue he hasn’t helped the team this year, also hard to argue you want him out there in a top 4 role on a good team.

  • Will

    They paid Schultz 4 million dollars. No, I would not mind Russel on an extension around the 2 million dollar mark. For years the team counted on too many youngsters to play tough minutes above themselves. Even if Russel is getting caved, he’s at least helping shelter the younger guys.

    I would say he’s a better right side option than Gryba or Reinheart as well. So the question is if you take him out, you do you replace him with?

    Darnell Nurse, the future number one guy a few years ago, is thriving with less minutes, coming along this year slowly. You want to get rid of Russel and replace him with… Ethan Bear? Until a better option presents itself or Jim Nill decides he doesn’t want Klinberg all of a sudden, Russel has been the opposite of what the team has had here for years: guys who win the Corsi battle, but lose everything else.

    • fisherprice

      I don’t see Russell suddenly taking a paycut on an extension.

      Also, I don’t know what world you’ve been living in but the Oilers have been getting destroyed in the Corsi battle for like a decade straight now. This is the first season EVER that the Oilers have had a positive team Corsi since they started tracking the stat.

        • fisherprice

          The Oilers finished with a 44.3% team Corsi in 2013-14 under Eakins, good for 28th in the league. They also finished 29th in shots for. Their Corsi was terrible under Eakins, this is simply a fact, not an arguable point.

        • whateverhappenedtoearledwards

          I think you nee to check your sources. Wilis presented the following for the Oiler corsi over the last years:

          •2007-08 (MacTavish): 46.2%
          •2008-09 (MacTavish): 46.8%
          •2009-10 (Quinn): 44.8%
          •2010-11 (Renney): 44.6%
          •2011-12 (Renney): 47.3%
          •2012-13 (Krueger): 44.9%
          •2013-14 (Eakins): 43.6%
          •2014-15 (Eakins/Nelson): 47.0%
          •2015-16 (McLellan): 47.7%

          One of you is mistaken.

  • ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Matt Henderson writes:

    Here is where Sekera ranks of those seven in some key statistical categories . . .

    It’s hard to understand how Sekera’s standing serves to support your criticism of Russell.

    I’d be interested to know:

    – Oilers won-loss record or points percentage with Russell in & out of the line up.

    – Oilers GFA and GAA with with Russell in & out of the line up.

    – Sekera’s #’s “in key statistical categories” with & without Russell.

    What I’m trying to get towards answering:

    Do they win more or less often with Russell in the line up?

    Do they score more and allow fewer goals against or the converse? (given that he’s a +8 and 3rd on the team in +/- I’m guessing that they score more and allow fewer goals with Russell on the ice than with anyone else except Sekera or McDavid 5v5)

    Does his D partner play better when he plays with Russell?

  • @Hallsy4

    And What the Hell Matt, C’mon man. You made some statements in this article that are absolute non-sense. I don’t really even like Russell, but he’s not the worst defender, not by a long shot. I’m not saying sign him long term, or for big dollars, he probably makes too much this year, but he’s an NHL D man who’s helped this team immensely. Whats wrong with a 1 year extension, for fairly cheap. You forgot 1 stat in your list. Wins and Losses. What is the Oilers record with and without Russell?

  • Ready to Win

    “it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Oilers are on the verge of doing something incredibly unadvisable: Extending Kris Russell”

    Out of interest, what are the Oilers doing or saying which makes it clear an extension is coming?

  • Jay (not J)

    It’s tough to find a stat that is more important that W/L (I mean, what the hell are they out there for anyway?)As long as they’re winning with him in the lineup and losing with him out, the rest of this is moot.

  • Optos

    Russell’s skating allows him to retrieve pucks a lot faster which enables the oilers to break out quicker with a controlled exit or bank the puck out of the defensive zone faster than we have had in recent years. This is what makes him so important to the oiler’s defensive core. Without him, in the past we’ve seen teams dump the puck in against the Oilers, and our defense would scramble to retrieve the puck and end up reversing it along the boards or be unsuccessful at moving the puck. He is aggressive for his size and blocks shots. Sure his corsi stats are the worst, but the numbers don’t lie. We win more games with him on the back end than without.

  • ziyan94

    What people appreciate about Kris Russell is that he’s actually a capable NHL defender, and it’s about time that we had 6 of those in our lineup every game. Of course Russell has flaws, he’s human (unlike McDavid)

  • ziyan94

    What people appreciate about Kris Russell is that he’s actually a capable NHL defender, and it’s about time that we had 6 of those in our lineup every game. Of course Russell has flaws, he’s human (unlike McDavid)

  • McRaj

    What I see is that he ranks as #3 in scoring chances and his on ice save percentage is high. Perhaps that’s because although he allows zone entry and shots, etc, perhaps he is better at limiting the quality of shots. I’d rather have a player allowing 5 shots per game from the outside over a player allowing 2 shots per game from the slot.