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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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:

  • 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.

  • MessyEH!

    They should offer him 3m x 3 years. Anything more than that and he’s not worth it.

    He is essentially dog crap. Polished by the saw him goods. But dog crap none the less.

    • Dan 1919

      Would you trade Klefbom, Sekera or Larsson for $6mil Eberle. No? Then I wouldn’t expect another GM to do one of their top 4 dmen. I’ve been a long time proponent of trading Eberle, even when he was performing well his first couple years in the league because I could tell with his style of player, that he was at his peak early on. Now here we are years later with him at his ultimate low, and I’d almost say Chiarelli may’s well hold onto him and hope his value increases getting easy matchups next year, then get rid of him come the Oiler cap crunch next offseason.

      • Oil DAWG

        It’s apples and oranges though . If a team has a lot of Defencemen they may be more inclined to do the deal for Eberle in hopes of bringing in some offence!! I don’t see any huge trades for him… but I don’t think exposing him for nothing is the answer

  • albertabeef

    “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…… So is this how the spreadsheet fans do it – if one spreadsheet doesn’t fit your narrative, just use a different one?

    • Jonathan Willis

      Corsi is generally preferable to Fenwick because the sample size is larger, giving you a more accurate result. For most players, there is no significant difference between the two stats – the numbers are the same every time – so the larger sample is king.

      However, when you get into players who are exceptional shot blockers, like Russell, their Fenwick rating is always going to be better than their Corsi. That matters because when there’s a difference Fenwick correlates more closely with scoring chances and goals. So to get a proper view of these players’ values, you need to switch to Fenwick or you’ll chronically underrate them.

      As always, the goal here is to use the best available data and then construct a narrative from that, rather than constructing a narrative and then cherry-picking data to fit it.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Gravis82

      The problem with his numbers is that, while we score more that we get scored on when he’s on the ice, we also spend a ton of time in the D zone.

      Would another defenseman, who was worse at D, but better at getting the puck out and not having to play defense as much, lead to better overall outcomes?

      Maybe Russel leads to, 3 goals for and 2 goals against for every 10 games. While another defense man leads to 9 goals for and 6 goals against for every 10 games, same ratio, but more goals for. And goals is what we count, not ratios. I like the odds of winning with a ratio that includes more goals for.

      If I had access to the data, I would attempt to do this properly. I think this is the crux of the issue with Russel. Good D man, seems like you could play higher in the lineup, and you can, but the more you play him the more time you spend in your own end even though it doesn’t hurt you. Quite the unique player.

  • tileguy

    Goodbye Kurt, I doubt you sign for under $3.5 and or only for one year. Hello Eric, you million dollar 7th D, you are now our 6th D and the money we are saving here as well as a jetison or two brings in more fire power.

  • thprop

    Not trolling…but I think it was a good decision by the Flames to let Russell go…and having to watch way too much Oiler playoff hockey this year :)…I think Benning is very quickly going to make you say Kris who?