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Photo Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Edmonton Oilers extend Kris Russell?

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 4 RD Kris Russell

One of the biggest questions facing the Edmonton Oilers this summer is whether or not they should re-sign Kris Russell, who was brought in on a one-year stopgap deal and played important minutes for the team in 2016-17.

The answer to that question is not something we’re all going to agree on.

To understand why Russell is so polarizing, we only really need to look at two numbers: His team’s on-ice goals and his team’s on-ice shots at 5-on-5 over his four years as a top-four defenceman.

One quick note: I’ve purposely used Fenwick here instead of Corsi. Russell is a shot-blocker par excellence, and Corsi thus consistently underrates his play. Fenwick is the same statistic, but it excludes blocked shots, thus not penalizing Russell for his proficiency in that area.

There are essentially two schools of thought, and both are compatible with Russell’s on-ice results over his career. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I’ll present them here.

The first is this: Russell is a superb defenceman in his own end of the rink; the kind of player who can boost a goalie’s save percentage and is clearly better than his shot metrics would otherwise indicate. This school of thought places a high value on Russell’s ability to get in shooting lanes and his gritty style of play.

For evidence, proponents of this view can point to those goal results. In two of the last four seasons, Russell’s on-ice goal numbers have been vastly superior to his shot metrics. One of those seasons happens to have been this past one. The opposition owned the puck when Russell was on the ice, but despite this the Oilers outscored them.

The second view is that while these discrepancies between shots and goals can occasionally happen, the vast majority of players do not possess the ability to make them happen year-in and year-out. Those that do are usually elite players (Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom, etc.) and even in those cases the effect is smaller than most would expect. Proponents of this view may note that in two of the last four seasons, Russell’s on-ice goal totals have been a perfect reflection of his on-ice shot metrics.

This school places a lot of emphasis on the things Russell does that lead to Edmonton being outshot. He can be overly conservative at the blue line, allowing opponents to gain the zone with possession. He frequently makes ring-around-the-boards plays and desperation dumps to centre rather than clean outlet passes. Broadly speaking, he takes an ultraconservative approach to even-strength play which limits his team’s ability to get the puck to the other team’s end of the ice.

In both views, Russell is an NHL defenceman. The difference is that in the former he’s a legitimate top-four option (generally in a second pairing role), while in the latter he’s a third-pairing guy who excels on special teams. This distinction has generated endless argument between the people at either end of the spectrum, and will doubtless continue to do so next season.

Regardless of your personal leanings on which of these two players Russell actually is, three points should be relatively uncontroversial:

  • Todd McLellan and his staff like Russell and see him as useful
  • There are limited other options for the second-pairing right defenceman role out there, and they’ll be expensive
  • Russell is highly motivated to get the security of a multiyear contract this summer

The last point is probably the most important from a negotiating perspective. Russell turned 30 earlier this month, and is at the point now where if he doesn’t get a three- or four-year contract he may never be able to get it. He’s not a player who has ever earned obscene amounts of money; this year’s one-year deal at $3.1 million was the richest of his career. He’s also mostly been stuck signing for one or two years at a time.

Now he’s coming off a good season, in a summer where there aren’t a lot of other defensive options in free agency and in which the expansion draft guarantees that some teams will have money to burn and open spots on their blue lines. It’s his last, best chance to make serious cash.

Is Russell a good enough player for the Oilers to make that kind of commitment? Or does the team need a different defenceman in his role as it pushes for a Stanley Cup next season and in the years that follow? Those are the questions that need to be answered for the team to make a decision here.

Bottom line: Russell played important minutes for a very successful Oilers team in 2016-17. Whether Edmonton should commit to him playing those minutes in future years is a question that divides fans, and no matter what the club decides some portion of the fanbase is going to be unhappy.

Previous year-end reviews:

  • Rock11

    I have some serious Kris Russell issues. Despite Brownlee’s wit it is important to note that the blocked shots ARE because the puck is always in his D zone when he is on the ice. This is a problem. Having said that I believe he is a useful 3rd pairing D. If he wanted to be paid like that and shot right I’d be all for bringing him back.

    The second issue is redundancy. Larsson brings many of the same attributes that Russell does but amplified. This team needs, in my opinion, a more offense oriented player in that 2RD role. I’m not sure that player is readily available but if he is you want to be able to move on him and locking Russell into a long term contract takes you out of play. This forward group can do significant damage but it will need to rely on a D corps that can get the puck to them with speed in the neutral zone and this is not and will never be a strength of KR. Frankly I just think the style of play in that slot needs to be addressed.

  • 4000miaway

    I remember reading about how real analytics aren’t satisfied with recording the number of shots/goals/whatever but look at what the game situation is. What happens around them, when in the game did it happen, where they defending a lead or looking for an equalizer? What I like about Russell is his game is very consistent. Whether you like him or not you’ve got to agree that he puts in the same effort regardless of the importance of the game or who the opponent is. I think coaches like that, knowing what they are going to get when they out him on the ice. Sure he has bad games but it’s mostly because the puck didn’t bounce his way, not because he was coasting like Eberle and Lucic are known to do every once in a while. Especially Lucic is like night and day whether he’s feeling it or not and that’s a bigger problem to me than his lack of speed and stone hands.

  • Johnny Zylon

    I ditch Nurse before Russell. Russell is all about defence, don’t even think about him for offence. Teams that think defence first and are in the top 10 for goals against usually do we in the playoffs. Russell has a high hockey IQ whereas Nurse just isn’t that bright or talented. Just review the goals in game seven and You will see why Nurse needs to go.

    • Finnish Oiler fan in Edmonton89

      I actually agree.

      Nurse has all the physical tools to be a good player

      He lacks hockey IQ though.

      And if you point that out, you get crucified in the comments.

      I really want to see Nurse on LW and see what he can do there

      • crabman

        It takes defenceman time to learn to play at the nhl level. We probably have 2 maybe 3 seasons until we know for sure what his true potential is. He already made huge strides in his defensive game this year. The coaching staff and gm seem pleased with his progression. I think I’ll leave the evaluation of the players up to the pros.

  • Hatrack

    How about trying to trade Eberle to Carolina for Justin Faulk and for good measure you could also add Griffin Reinhart. Carolina is suppose to be looking for more scoring wingers, not sure if Eberle fits that bill or not. Just a thought.

  • Big Nuggets

    I like Russel but i dont want to sign him to a long term deal, especially if it is for over 3 mil per. Also the offseason should have lots of wheeling and dealing and it sounds like Ebs is on the outs. I would explore trade options first.
    You guys may not like this but i would rather not sign anybody and give Benning more minutes than sign Russ, then at the trade deadline make a deal for Mike Green or somebody to give the team a playoff boost(assuming we are in line for the playoff next year).

    • jonnyquixote

      Teams get in trouble when players like Russell are given long-term or big-money extensions after good years (and no mistake, this was a pretty damned good year by Russell). Anything more than 3 years at his current numbers or 2 years at a slight raise (and even those are risky) and it’s time to thank him for his service.

      Good teams have to have the cojones to walk away from players like this, and certainly the Russell signing gave the Oilers the chance to develop Nurse (and others) a bit more patiently. But there needs to be room for the young guys now or soon, and roster spots and cap space freed up.

  • commonsense

    This guy is small. He plays with a big heart. I didn’t know previously that he was twice awarded defenceman of the year in the WHL. I just don’t think his contract demands are going to mesh with what the Oilers will offer him.

  • knee deep in it

    there is one potential explanation to the difference in fenwick vs GF. Last year, he played in front of an elite goaltender. If his style reduces the number of grade A scoring chances against, then he will hardly ever be on the ice for a GA.

    In previous seasons, he played in front of questionable goaltending. Many scoring chances against should not have resulted in goals but did. Calgary has had some of the worst goaltending in the league for the 3 years prior to this season.

    I wonder if he is a good fit in front of an elite goaltender but a poor fit in front of average to poor goaltending? In that case, Chia has to consider the fit in Edm vs a general overview of his ability in a generic situation.

  • NealH

    Yes, Kris Russell is a conservative D who will do anything to keep the puck out of the net. Leads the league in blocked shots. Isn’t going to be Brent Burns, but is a team guy and one of the most courageous and toughest players in the league. Not fighting tough, but cowboy from Caroline type tough. Smart in his own end, and consistently dependable. What Kris Russell does is help teams win – by doing a lot of the heavy lifting. No wonder the coaches like him. After the keystone cops type fire drills we’ve witnessed around our net for many years, don’t you think we need a guy like that? Haven’t we learned we need different skill sets on a team?
    As we all know, hockey is much of a business as it is a sport, and it will depend on Kris’s contract demands, but he is worth what Calgary and other teams will offer. I say 3mm for 3 years is fair to both.

  • Pouzar99

    I like Russell and see him as a very legit second pairing D man. I love the fact he is a fierce and fearless competitor with lots of experience. The only problem is that with Sekera as a partner he has to play on his off side which makes it harder for him to get the puck out of his own zone or make a sharp pass to a speeding winger. Right now I don’t see an available second pairing, D man who is as good. With Davidson gone and Reinhart likely going to Vegas, signing Russell to three years at a little over 3 million seems like the best plan.