Edmonton will have to make a decision on Kris Russel in the coming weeks. The 30-year-old defenseman will become an unrestricted free agent and try to get a long-term contract after failing to do so last summer, but the Oilers should refrain from making any such deal.
Russell was rumoured to be seeking upwards of five years and $5 million per year last July but ended up settling for a one-year $3.1 million deal with Edmonton in September. Peter Chiarelli has said he wants to have Russell back but has to sign Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl first.
Andrej Sekera’s injury complicates things further. The Oilers will be without one of their top two left-handed defensemen for as much as half of the season, which leaves a lot of minutes to be filled.
Signing Russell might be attractive for Edmonton. He played a lot of minutes, seems willing to re-sign, and the team had success with him. But Kris Russell is not Andrej Sekera and the Oilers should look elsewhere to replace those minutes despite Todd McLellan’s reliance on Russell last season.
Edmonton should hold off on signing Russell because they’ve signed this type of player before, and it doesn’t go well.
Smid was a longtime Oiler who eventually worked his way up to play over 20-minutes a game from 2010-2013. Smid was extended for four years and $14 million ($3.5 million per year) before reaching unrestricted free agency by then general manager Steve Tambellini.
Smid would play 17 games next season before being traded to Calgary for prospects.
Both Russell and Smid occupied the same left-handed defensive defensemen territory. Russell is much smaller, but a better skater, although Smid was three years younger at the time of his extension.
Injuries played a factor, but Smid quickly went from playing 20-minutes a night in Edmonton to a bottom of the roster player in Calgary, and eventually out of the league.
Ference was effectively Smid’s replacement. The Oilers opted for the 34-year-old blueliner, signing him to a four-year deal worth $3.25 million per year.
Ference was coming off a season as Boston’s number four defensemen the year they lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ference played a similar role in Boston that Russell did in Edmonton: loads of minutes at even strength and regular time on the penalty kill. They were both left-handed defensive specialists who didn’t provide much offense, although Russell played the right side as a left-handed shot.
Ference will end his Oilers’ career playing six games in the final two years of his contract. A four-year deal takes Russell to the same age Ference was at the start of his Oiler career, but it’s worth noting Russell has 119 fewer games played than Ference had at the time he signed his contract.
The Oilers were desperate for defensive help and overpaid Nikita Nikitin for two years at $4.5 million per year. The signing was questionable from the beginning, but the 28-year-old was only one season removed from playing 21-minutes a game for Columbus.
Nikitin was a disaster. The big defenseman couldn’t play reliable minutes for Edmonton, and would eventually find himself demoted to the minors before the last year of his contract.
The Nikitin signing shows what happens when the Oilers are desperate for help on defense. They once again sought a defenseman who played more of a shutdown game, although Nikitin’s role had diminished in Columbus and was healthy scratched in the playoffs before reaching free agency, which should have been a warning sign to Edmonton.
With the lack of veteran right-handed options on the roster, the Oilers signed Fayne for four years at $3.65 million per year the same summer as the Nikitin signing.
The longtime partner for Andy Greene posted solid advanced stats for New Jersey, although brought very little in terms of offense. The 26-year-old recently played a top-four role in the Stanley Cup Final for New Jersey in 2012, but couldn’t be trusted to play reliable minutes for an Edmonton team desperate for defense only a few years later.
Fayne would find his way to the minors in the second year of his contract, similar to Nikitin. Fayne is likely starting there again next season. The Oilers will save $1 million with him in the AHL unless he’s traded or bought out.
After McLellan didn’t see much in Fayne, Chiarelli signed Russell to a one-year deal worth $3.1 million.
McLellan trusted Russell. He played the bulk of the season on the right side of Andrej Sekera, logging big minutes 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill.
Russell is a defensemen whose talent is tilted towards the defensive side, similar to the past Edmonton signees. He scored 13 points and isn’t likely to see much power play time with Oscar Klefbom and Matt Benning as better options.
Problems arise if Russell wants multiple years at more money, and it sure seems like he does. Russell will be older than all of the defensemen mentioned, save for Ference, at the time of their signings. Sekera’s injury might make it seem like a Russell signing is necessary, but as the Nikitin signing shows, bad things happen when you make moves out of desperation.
On a one year deal the Oilers were able to grab a stopgap that meant Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning weren’t played too high in the lineup, but extending Russell carries significant risk.
Edmonton has previously invested a lot in late twenties defensive defensemen, but should resist doing it again here. The Oilers might feel Russell is a better player currently than those mentioned here, although the reception to Smid’s signing was universally positive at the time, recent history shows they should aim higher for defensive help, or risk having a big cap-hit for a declining player on the books during the team’s important years.