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Photo Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Signing Kris Russell Would Be A Horrible Mistake

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.

  • Redbird62

    David Staples wrote an article back in December on Kris Russell and analytics being done by Truperformance, which actually gets paid to do in depth assessments of NHL players (combines more meaningful stats with the eye test). http://edmontonjournal.com/sports/hockey/nhl/cult-of-hockey/analytics-expert-says-kris-russell-of-edmonton-oilers-is-underrated-and-one-of-nhls-top-defensive-d-men. I trust their assessment over Matt’s any day. Plus as I pointed out the other day, 3 very experienced and arguably successful NHL coaches, Ruff, Hartley and McClellan have viewed and used Russell as a viable 3-4 defenceman on a playoff caliber team over the past 6 years. That said 4×4 is still a risk and maybe even a big one (but not guaranteed to be wrong as Matt would have us believe), but every free agent signing is a risk. Sekera’s , who signed his contract at the same age as Russell is now, saw improved performance from his first year to his second in Edmonton, so why not Russell?

  • YFC Prez

    The stats just don’t line up for Russel. I like the player. I think this is one of those cases against the fancy nerd stats. I would be defending him but I lost interest in doing so when I read the contract in discussion.

    4 years, 4 mill. No. Just no.

    Like Russel, Hate Russel, doesn’t matter. That 4 year term comes with huge risk. Especially considering his career up till last season.

  • Randaman

    The thing that gets lost in all this talk of other teams offering more money and longer term, Russel has to realize how high his chances of winning a cup are here and besides that he has said he wants to be in Alberta (closer to home). Edmonton over Calgary is a no brainer if you ask me in terms of chances of winning. If he doesn’t accept 3 x 3.5 max, let him walk

  • braddos

    That’s the longest hate blog yet on Russell, all based on a rumor. This is really the reason I’ve just stopped reading Henderson’s blogs. Even though Russell is the worst D in the league appartently during our playoff run he was 1 pt ahead of Sekera and 1 behind Klefbom with 4, of the top 6 D was third in p/pg, was the only D of the top 4 in the + in +/- , while taking the second most shifts per game on D. His playoff stats are a bit better than the seaon stats where he placed more where you would expect a Defensive shot blocker to place. He isn’t a top pairing guy but he isn’t the bottom feeder Henderson so venomously writes about either. This has really gotten rediculous! I’ll try reading something from you when you get a new topic maybe.

    • btrain

      No kidding! You can criticize any player in the context of their NHL performances but to call anyone, let alone a guy with as much NHL experience as Russell, a terrible hockey player is outrageous!

    • ET

      Actually what has Todd ever won as a head coach, zilch, nada, nothing, that’s what. Not saying he’s a bad coach and there is no doubt he knows more about hockey than I. I’m just saying it was a mistake to hire a coach who could not get his team in SJ over the hump. They had to wait until he was gone to make a Cup final. Was that all Todd’s fault? Probably not but open your eyes man! He could not ever realize who the best RW for MacD was. I would have kept the other Todd, you know, the one whose team just won a Calder Cup, they guy who got the most out of Yak and Lander, the up and coming Todd and no the “I had my chance but couldn’t do it Todd. If you think McLellan had much to do with us making the playoffs and then having a good run then you were watching a different Oilers team than I was this yea for sure. And by the way, McLellan was a bad coach for playing Russell so much!

      • Redbird62

        Todd McClellan won a Calder Cup as the head coach of the Houston Aeros and a World Hockey Championship for Canada (2015) plus a Stanley Cup as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit. Against Anaheim, maybe he should have played Russell more considering he got 4 points and was plus 3 in the final 5 games of the series. Russell was not on the ice for any of Anaheim’s 3 goals with their goalie pulled.

  • hutch333

    Wow, I really wish some people watched hockey with their eyes, it would help them to see that you can analyze all the fancy stats in the world and not have a clue what you are saying. Posts like this make the author look completely ignorant of what real hockey looks like. I do agree there is risk in signing a player of his age and skill type to a deal longer than a couple years, but I do not doubt Kris’s ability to play and contribute at a high level to a competitive team. The reason I do not doubt this is because I watch the games, just like all the GM’s, coaches and scouts that agree with me. You NEED players like him on a team if you want to win.

  • Derian Hatcher

    Saw the headline…saw who wrote it and skipped right to the comments.
    When I see a Brownlee post, it’s must read for me. When I see a Henderson post – I always skip it.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion – that’s mine.

    • Anton CP

      I read the first line and thinking that maybe he should stay retired. It is strange that I remember he wasn’t this negative when he first started blogging on ON but just as the Oilers start seeing some better times to come that he started with more spite and anger. Very strange.

  • Explicit

    We need more credible hockey bloggers on this site. Henderson writes like a child that thinks he knows more than everyone. It’s one thing to have an opinion, it’s another to pass off an opinion as fact

  • toprightcorner

    I don’t even bother reading Henderson’s articles anymore, he is always negative and usually wrong. Mondays “Mailbag” blog, most contributors are consistent with each other and Matt is always completely opposite. I don’t know if he is just a full grown troll or if he was dropped on his head as a kid (twice a week). When all of the reputable pros thing one way and a single individual thinks the opposite, that one guy is usually a moron.

  • nuge2drai

    In all fairness to Matt – 4 years would be 2 years too many.

    In fairness to Russell… He makes the Oilers tougher to play against and was a big part of the team’s turn around.

    To say Russell is not a good or valuable player is unfair.

  • Slipknot 8

    Honestly though, I liked Russell determination and his give a “sh!t” meter is unbelievable, he’s a team first guy and by the sound of it a first class teamate.
    However, I’m seriously concerned about the amount of shots he blocks….
    I’m not a huge anylitic nerd guy but 1 + 1 + 1 starts to add up quickly..
    If Russel is blocking all these shots, then the puck is in the wrong spot, it’s like Smid, loved him till Dellow pointed out that the puck is never going in the right direction when Smid was on the ice…
    I get the same impression with Russell, great at defence except he’s always defending..
    Just a different way of looking at the nerd crap..

  • shaner

    It would be great if matt could run some fancy stats of the 80s oilers. To get to the bottom of all this “one of the best teams of all time” talk…….not sure but thinking maybe gretzkys Corsi will really put him back down to earth and show how pedestrians his numbers really are…..or maybe it’s time for a little fenwick to set people straight on how good “Mess’ actually is…… There has got to be some kind of small minute stat analytic that shows the oilers teams were actually just a huge anomaly……..and that the numbers say they flukes into 5 cups…

  • ScottV

    Russell makes a number of adjustments to his game, that compensates for his lack of size. The compensations are pretty smart – allowing him to earn a good living in the NHL. Advanced stats tend to overly paint a negative picture of his performance. He’s much like a fox hanging in there, whereas the position is best suited for a wolf. Things like – fronting a net front check – looking to block the incoming shot, rather than – physically boxing out a net front check and letting the goaltender handle the incoming shot. Tends to rely on puck oriented quickness and agility vs steady physical oriented positional d play. Tends to wait out cycles rather than breaking cycles. Tends to get rid of pucks rather than risk being stripped, as opposed to guys who would use superior size and reach to protect pucks for more time and space – to do something more constructive with the puck. Etc. etc. He’s better than advanced stats would suggest, but I would much prefer a rh wolf – who can shoot, to round out the top 4. If he’s gonna get anywhere near 4 years and $4mil, all the power to him and let him go.

  • Harry2

    At this point I am completely convinced that Kris Russel must have slept with Hendersons wife.

    Theres no other explaination for his hatred for this player. Henderson obviously didnt watch the playoffs