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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:

    • 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.

  • dsanchez1973

    I’ve been a Russell-detractor as much as anyone all year, but I can acknowledge after years of tire fires in our own end, he was at least capable of defending and clearing the puck out of the zone, even if it wasn’t controlled clearance. The problem is that given our upcoming cap crunch, I can’t see extending him for more than one year, and I don’t expect he’s going to be interested in a one year contract. There is no chance that he’s better than our 4th D behind Sekera, Larsson, and Klefbom, and he’s going to be pushed by Nurse and/or Benning for that spot very soon anyways. I will accept that I misjudged him and appreciate everything he did this year, but unless he’s willing to sign another 1 year contract, I wish him the best.

  • freelancer

    It would depend on the price tag. I would prefer another right shot on the second pairing but these playoffs have shown us how important depth is. If there is any way to have him competing with guys like Nurse and Banning for a third pairing role that would be great.

  • Bob Cobb

    In my view the first five in Edmonton are Klefbom, Larsson, Sekera, Nurse and Benning. Russell doesn’t bring significant more than those, his shot blocking, the ability to skate the puck out of trouble at times and make a first pass is what keeps him around. At the right price I say keep him, I would say 3.1 to 3.5 for a max of 3 years.

    • 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

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    I think Russell blew everyone’s expectations out of the water as a stopgap defenceman. Even still, I don’t think a multi-year extension makes sense given the makeup of the blueline. We need to address the right-left imbalance and ideally bring in someone with a bit more offence. There are also some serious cap issues on the horizon, and having Russell around at $3-4M when McDavid and Draisaitl are making a combined $20M will be trouble.

    Lowetide has mentioned Cody Franson numerous times as an option for 2RD next year, and if he would take a deal like Russell took this year, I would prefer that. Not to say Franson is a better player than Russell, but he makes more sense on this roster/payroll. Ideally after next season, a cheaper, internal option is ready to step into the 2RD role, say Benning or Bear.

    The other route that would make sense is to move a big contract up front, Nuge or Eberle, for a right shot D who is a clear upgrade like Hamonic.

  • Oilers8597

    I can’t believe this is even a question to re sign him or not, top shot blocker in THE NHL, that alone deserves a re sign, He’s also played on his offside on defence the whole season while Sekera got to stay on his strong side, not to many defencemen could do that all season and still play as well as he did, Russel is all heart and has proved that all year, I have no doubt Chiarelli will re sign him, only issue could be money of coarse

  • TKB2677

    Good piece Willis. It’s nice to see a guy that actually works on the advanced stats and holds them in high regard like yourself actually do the work and see that sometimes some of the numbers don’t always apply to players exactly right and that a player can bring a lot of value to a team despite what some numbers say. There are guys like Matt Henderson who beat Russell to death with certain numbers, feel he is completely useless and completely ignore the good things he does.

    I for one see both sides of the player. Russell is far from perfect but he’s a decent NHL dman who put in the right role (4-5 dman) can help your defense which was evident this past season. With the apparent emergence of Benning who could maybe be that #4 right shot and while ideally, I would like another right shot who’s an upgrade on Gryba to round out the pairings. I don’t see a good option out there in free agency. I don’t want the Oilers to blow their wad in a trade on getting another right shot because I don’t think they need too. So if the Oilers and Russell can come to an agreement where the term isn’t overly long and the dollars are in the range of what he made this past season, I wouldn’t have a problem bringing him back. Having a utility guy like Russell on the back end is nice to have.

    If the contract demands gets any longer than 3 years and or the dollars goes much past 3.5 mill, I would back away. I could easily see Russell getting contract offers of longer than 3 years for more than 4 mill. No way I want to see Russell making more than Klefbom and Larsson.

  • 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.

  • Dan 1919

    Same old story, if there’s nothing else to replace him with, and assuming he doesn’t want the moon, he has to be resigned in a heartbeat. It’s great to pontificate EANHL17 style saying he’s not a perfect top 4 Dman, which he isn’t, but reality is, the Oilers are far better with him than without him.
    If Chiarelli can somehow swing another blockbuster move for a top 3 dman, then sure Russell is the likely candidate without a chair afterwards, until then, we need legit top 4 dman.

  • Dan 1919

    In years past, I’m not sure we could be so confident that the GM’s would make the right moves. Now we can kick back and see what Chiarelli does knowing he knows better than any of us blogging or commenting.
    Sports teams are much more fun to follow when they are ran by competent management.

  • OriginalPouzar

    One of the top goals of PC this summer should be to fill that 2RD position.

    I don’t think we can do it internally – while Benning may be able to play 2RD, we can’t count on that yet and he’s best pencilled in at 3RD.

    While Nurse may be able to play 2LD (allowing Sekera to play 2RD), moving Sekera to his off-side is not ideal and we can’t count on Nurse yet and he should be pencilled in at 3LD.

    Russell is an option, however, the preference must be to try and find an actual 2RD with some offence – an upgrade at the position.

    The problem here is cap space and where will it come from. Eberle may be moved for cap space, however, we will need a replacement top 6 RW which will cost unless they consider moving Nuge to RW in the top 6 and adding a cheaper 3C (Nick Bjugstad potentially but he is likely more $$$ than we can afford in this scenario).

    Russell would be OK if we can’t find an improvement, however, I do not want to give him term, especially not at $4M plus with him being over 30 with groin issues – his inability to move the puck or provide offence makes that a bloating sum which we don’t want with term.

    I like Russell – he was great in the playoffs at defending, however, he still is what he is and he simply is not a great puck mover and doesn’t contribute to the offence (including with breakouts) – I’d like a more “talented” 2RD, but cap space is the issue.

  • 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?

  • Jay (not J)

    The guy is a warrior. Sure, he’s less than perfect, but he picks up his own trash as well as anyone and manages to pick up his partner’s too. What a team player though. The next time the team has its top 2 defenders out in a playoff game (it’ll happen) THIS IS THE GUY that that I want to see drawing a line in the ice. His example to his teammates – his leadership – is definitely worth trying to retain.

  • vetinari

    The guy took a pounding blocking shots in the playoffs and kept going. He has faults and no player is perfect but he is an NHL caliber defenceman and I would be fine with a 2-3 year deal within 10% of his pay cheque from last year. The only issue would be not to give him a NMC so that you can move him if necessary down the road (stay-at-home shot blocking defenders will always have value at the trade deadline).

  • Spiel

    It really comes down to price doesn’t it? He signed a one year deal at a lesser price compared to what he probably thought he would get as a UFA. At 30 years old, he is probably not looking for another one year deal. Coming off a good showing in this years playoffs and regular season where he played top 4 minutes for a playoff team, I think he will be getting a raise from someone.
    The Oilers should use the fact that they have McDavid and Draisaitl to attract players at a discount. So, I would be looking for this season’s Kris Russell – that is someone who will sign below market value for the short term – instead of paying market or above market for Kris Russell.

  • CMG30

    Russell has some glaring weaknesses as a player but he also has some clear strengths. In order to re-sign him, the right partner must be available to complement him. Specifically to help out with puck moving and breaking up the cycle. If PC was confident such a player was available, I would be OK giving him a multi-year deal, on the condition it was in the 2 – 2.5M/y range.

  • OakleyOil

    I like Russel and what he brings but I don’t think he is worth anymore money than what he was paid this year and if he is signed longer term than it has to be a lower cap hit than this years. He blocks a lot of shots and that’s great but his offence is very lacking, enough to where I think there could be better options out there. A person has to be careful falling in love with that type of player because he brings no offence.

  • 916oiler

    This is a tough one. His contract this year was perfect. If we could get him for 2 years @ the same AAV it’d be fine with me. 3 years is pushing it, 4 is a no. It will be up to him whether he wants to chase money or success.

  • giddy

    I would have no issue with Russell signing here for a reasonable price, but I think there are a lot of other teams who will be willing to pay Russell more than what the Oilers will be willing to.

    Wherever he winds up, however, I wish him the best. When Ritchie crushed him against the boards, smashing Russell’s head against the glass, and right after he jumps up and shrugs off both the trainer and the ref, man that was something else. Guy is tougher than old dirt and played his heart out night in and night out.

  • giddy

    Something I also want to add: I think one of Russell’s most underrated abilities is his skating–the guy can wheel pretty good. One of the reasons he’s so good at blocking shot is because he has great positioning, resulting from his speed and agility that gets him into shooting lanes. That said, with him turning 30, he’s only getting slower from here, and less agile as well. A three year contract could become really ugly in its third year.

  • Kepler62c

    I’d absolutely bring him back – salary doesn’t concern me if we are under the cap, its term that matters. Overpay him if you have to, but 2 years max.

  • 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.

  • godot10

    One year. One year only. Year to year is the only way to go with Russell.

    Non-core players, particularly edging 30, like Russell and Maroon should NEVER be given duration.

  • mb

    No, like the guy but he is going to be looking for his last contract. Long a term as he can get, and he earned it. In the cap age that will not work for the Oilers. First option the Oilers will look at is who they have on the farm to replace him.

  • dawgbone98

    The other question is if they do sign him, does it make more sense to wait until after the expansion draft?

    The biggest problem I have with Russell is the fact that yes he blocks a lot of shots and yes, this year he out performed his shot rates in terms of GF… but it seems to be an up and down thing for him. Last 4 years he’s been sub 50% in fenwick. 2 of the years he was a + in GF%, the other 2 he was right on par with what his shot rates suggest.

    One of the things that jumps out this year vs last year (keep in mind this is based on a single playoff round last year) is this year his shot blocks weren’t ending up in bad spots with him out of position (i.e. it hits him and bounces to the opposition in front of the net). How much control does a defenseman have over that sort of thing? Has Russell figured it out or were the bounces just more in his favour?

  • crabman

    The thing with signing Russell is can we afford to invest in a multi year deal for his player type? He doesn’t contribute to the offense and out of the top 6 he was 5th in +/- and only out scored Nurse, who played 44 games. If the Oilers are going to invest real cap dollars and term on a 4th dman I would like to get more in return than a shot blocking specialists.

  • Little Buttcheeks

    It depends on the term, money, and most importantly in my opinion, what else is out there. I think we can all agree that Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, and Benning will all be apart of this team next year. That pretty much only leaves one spot for an addition. Depending solely on individual improvement is risky because there is also (hopefully not, but we need to be realistic) the possibility of a young player temporarily regressing as development isn’t usually linear. Russell is steady, dependable, and safe. I think we could use another dynamic player on the blueline, just not sure if that player is out there this offseason.