I’m coming out of my semi-retirement on blogs about Kris Russell to talk about the potential of re-signing this boat anchor to a debilitating four-year deal at $4 million annually. Click the link to learn more, but it’s such an awful idea that you should intuitively know that it’s bad.
I don’t know the sources that people like Ryan Rishaug have, but we should assume that they are well placed. So when he suggests on TSN 1260 that the Oilers would be willing “when push comes to shove” to give Russell a new deal at $4 million over four years, we give it more consideration than if some random blogger with a giant stone head for a profile pic speculates about what the Oilers will do. Rishaug isn’t talking to bathroom attendants and the guy making the porchetta sandwich (which is delicious FYI). His opinions are generally more informed than that.
Now, it’s not that having another $4 million defender is inherently bad. It’s also not awful to shore up a position for four years if the right player is there. The biggest problem, and I cannot stress this enough, is that Kris Russell is not good at hockey. Specifically, he is incredibly poor at being a second pairing right-handed defender. This is in no small part due to the fact that he is neither right-handed nor particularly good when facing tough opposition.
There’s the part where he has to pass the puck. That ends up around the boards and/or on the tape of the opposing team more often than not.
There’s the part where he has to shoot the puck. He does that the least out of all Oiler defenders (because most shots tend to happen in the offensive zone).
There’s the part where you prevent the other team from coming into your zone with control of the puck. Oh my.
There’s the part where once the other team is in the zone you protect the front of your net. That’s a problem for the small defender.
There’s the part where you solve the problem in your own zone and you help transition the team back to offence. As best we can tell that part never actually happened with Russell on the ice.
I’m probably being too gentle here, and my subtlety sometimes confuses people as to my true meaning, so let me be blunt for a moment. Kris Russell was poor all year. He has been poor for years before that. He had an extremely negative impact on the performance of the club and was propped up by Cam Talbot’s heroics behind him. The Oilers should be thankful that they only signed him to a single season last fall after nobody else in the NHL wanted him, and looking to give him a raise on both dollar and term to that deal is outrageous/shocking/mind numbing.
Let’s recap some indisputable facts:
Individually, Russell mustered a measly 3.13 shots per 60 minutes 5v5. That’s Roman Polak territory. He produced points at slightly less than Eric Gryba’s hourly rate (0.60 for Russell, 0.62 for Gryba). If we break that offence down to just primary goals or primary assists his rank drops to near the bottom of all NHL defenders who played at least 1000 minutes. So he’s not much of a point producer. Not a big deal. Not every defender needs to be involved in the play directly to be helping. What really matters is how he helps the team perform.
This is actually where things go from bad to worse. At the on-ice level, Kris Russell has one of the most profound effects on the team. You might say he’s the second most impactful player on the club behind only Connor McDavid. The difference being none of it seems to be good.
Russell is ranked 128/133 NHL defenders with 1000 minutes played in shot attempts for per 60 minutes relative to teammates with -7.38 CF/60. Essentially, when he steps on the ice the team directs the puck towards the net 13% less often. At the same time, the shot attempts against go up by about 10%. It’s quite the swing and all in the wrong direction. At a raw percentage, Russell’s teammates operate at a 52.2% shot attempt ratio, but when Russell was on the ice the Oilers dropped down to 46.4%.
So what? What really matters *is* goals for and against. At the end of the day, goals win games and Kris Russell had a positive goal differential 5v5. It’s true. He did have a 54.7% Goals For ratio. Stellar. It’s even better than Klefbom’s so he must be amazing. Good enough for me, let’s all go home. Watch the game, nerd (except when you see bad things, don’t watch that part).
Slight problem. We know Russell himself isn’t providing offence. We know that the shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, and plain old shots themselves are all better without Russell. These are the events that lead to goals. Edmonton scores goals at a half a goal per game better when Russell is on the bench. As soon as he steps on the ice the team scores suddenly 0.61 goals per 60 minutes fewer. So how does he have a positive goal differential?
The answer to that question seems to be: Cam Talbot. Russell’s on-ice save percentage was .9384, which really helped drive his goals against down. It was the second highest on the team, only behind Sekera. The real issue is that the Oilers can’t depend on this being the case next year or the year after that. It varies constantly. Last year, with Talbot behind him primarily, Sekera’s on-ice save percentage was a normalish .9177 and fifth of 10 Oiler D to play 200 minutes. Russell had a .9046 a year ago and it was one of the lowest on either Calgary or Dallas.
His on-ice save percentage this past year was the highest recorded in his NHL career. All that defensive reliability the Oilers appear to be intent on paying for looks more like Cam Talbot’s reliability. If we reduce Talbot’s save percentage to just a 92.54 when Russell is on the ice, which would reduce his overall PDO to an even 100.0 (and still keeping the save percentage on the top half of the team), then Kris Russell goes from a 54.7 GF% to 50.0%.
If we’re looking at points of failure, there is just one with Russell and his goals for ratio. If Cam Talbot reduces his effectiveness, even just a little, then with the number of shots and attempts against him we should expect a massive swing in goals against while Russell is on the ice. That’s the problem when your goalie bails you out so much.
So back to signing Russell to a long-term extension with a 29% raise. Why on Earth would you make this deal? Why would you even consider it? The team struggled greatly and needed heroics from their goaltender to succeed with Russell in the role of a second pairing defender. We haven’t even delved into the world of With or Without You statistics that highlight how brutal an effect was had on even great players like McDavid in this article, but the eye test and the results speak for themselves. This is not a good player. He was poor in the role of second pairing right side defender. He’s already 30 years old. He isn’t going to be improving over the next four years.
You need some pretty special goggles to not see the huge problems in his game and some pretty fancy logic to ignore the basic facts in this case. The only thing reliable about Russell is that you can pretty much bank on the team struggling at both ends of the ice when he’s playing.