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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Russell: Talking Contract, Analytics and Offense

Kris Russell average 21:13 TOI/game last season with the Edmonton Oilers. Only Connor McDavid and Andrej Sekera averaged more. He signed a one-year deal just before the season began, and despite limited reps with Sekera, they played quite well together right away.

He skates well, is very competitive, but at times he was overly cautious and it resulted in limited offensive opportunities for him and the team. He only had 68 shots in 68 games. Matt Hendricks (42 shots in 42 GP) and Anton Lander (12 shots in 22) were the only other Oilers (minimum 20 GP) to average one shot/game or lower.

Peter Chiarelli signed Russell to a four-year extension last Friday, and I had the chance to talk with Russell about his new contract, his expectations for the season, how he views analytics and the areas of his game he is looking to improve.

Russell joined me on TSN1260 last Friday, and he was excited and relieved to have a new contract in place prior to the season.

**My comments will be in italics***

Gregor: Because of how last year unfolded and not signing a contract until October, did that factor into your decision this off-season?

Russell: Yeah, I think that had a little part to do with it. The main part, however, was getting the opportunity to play in Edmonton. I really enjoyed my time here and it’s really exciting to get something worked out.

Gregor: I was told that early in free agency last year a team offered you a multi-year deal and you didn’t sign it. Was that factual?.

Russell: Um… Yeah there was some interest and an offer. Last year, there were certain teams I was hoping to have a chance to play with. It was more about location than anything.

Gregor: Would you have broadened your horizons had you made it to July 1st this year?

Russell: Yeah I think so. It’s a different scenario every year. I obviously am really happy to get the deal done with Edmonton. I wanted to stay in Edmonton so I was hoping not to go to July 1st, but the way  the business is you never know if stuff like that is going to happen. I was ready for anything, but I’m just excited to sign.

Gregor: With Andre Sekera injured, you’re kind of the old veteran with four young defenders. When you look at [Oskar] Klefbom, [Adam] Larsson, [Darnell] Nurse and [Matt] Benning, what are your expectations for those young four and how they could develop over the next few years?

Russell: I think they are all on their way. Klef and Larsson are a few years older and a few years more established and they proved it last year. With Nursey, Benny, Nurse had a tough start with the injuries but I thought he kept improving and is learning how to use his assets to his advantage. Same with Benning. He really impressed me, I’m excited to see where his game can go, and I expect he will get more offensive looks this year with Reggie out. All of us are just trying to get better and work together as a group to try to better our chances to win.

Gregor: Heading into next season are there elements of your game that you feel you have to sharpen up?

Russell: Yeah I think so. I feel like I can help a little more offensively. Not that I’m going to try to be an offensive-minded guy, but I think sometimes I hesitate a little bit and err on the side of caution. So, I want to work that (offense) into my game a little bit. I’m fine with whatever the coaches need [of] me, and whenever the team needs me I’m going to try to help out in any way that I can.

Gregor: You were a dominant offensive guy in Junior. Even in Columbus and Calgary you had some decent numbers. How do you remove the offensive hesitation out of your game and bring back more of that younger offensive flare to your game?

Russell: I think it’s just, it helps with the coaches, constant reminders. If they see me jumping back into that fold, they need to remind me to get it out of my head as soon as possible. It’s a lot of work watching videos to see what I could do. Also, in practice jumping up a little bit more trying to see what I can do and working it into my game. I think that there are a lot of ways that we could go about it. I’m going to put in the work trying to get better in that regard offensively.

***Russell is a very good skater. We see it often when he jumps quickly into a lane to block a shot. I’d like to see him use his speed, and his very good slap shot, much more in the next few years. It is great he has become an elite shot-blocker, but he has shown he can add offence when he commits to it. There were many occasions last year where he was too passive in the offensive zone. He’d back out, rather than attack. Even in the neutral zone, there were times he could have used his great speed to take a play forward. I believe he has the ability to be much more involved offensively, and not to the detriment of his defensive play. He should be able to chip in with 20-23 points, and more importantly, I’d like to see him put himself in a position to use his very good shot more often. It is unlikely he will get a lot of PP time, but his shots at EV can increase. He only had 63 EV shots this past season, 0.92/game. He has been at 1.15-1.18 many years in Columbus and Calgary and I’d like to see him back in that range in Edmonton.***

Gregor: You came in late last season and were paired with Andrej Sekera right and you two had good chemistry. What was it about playing with Sekera that worked for you?

Russell: I think our experience helped. We’re different players, but we’ve been in the league the same amount of time and we kind of went through the same things. We just read off of each other well. We communicated very well. We had a good relationship off of the ice which I think translates on the ice. He’s an exceptional player. He’s very smart and he’s a player who makes you better. He helped me throughout the year and I look forward to playing with him again.

PLAYING BOTH SIDES

Gregor: He won’t be ready to start the season. You’ve proven to be versatile and can play both sides. At this stage of your career, can you go from left to right game-by-game? Is it that easy or does it still take some time to adjust playing left or right defense?

Russell: No I think, I’m pretty confident in playing both sides. Obviously there are adjustments you have to make in you’re thinking, positioning and the different situations whether you’re on your forehand or your backhand that come into play. In this league, you have to adapt to any situation you’re put in, and I feel I can do that regardless of the side they want me to play on.

Gregor: In today’s game puck distribution, moving the puck and making a good first pass is crucial. How do you feel about the aspect of moving pucks out of the zone quickly? As a 30-year-old defender, what do you do to try and improve that?

Russell: Like I said before we have the video every day that we go through with the coaches and there are things to clean up. I think I’m using my skating as much as I can, and I make sure that I’m in good shape and retrieving pucks quickly. I will work this summer on carrying and moving the puck accurately and quickly up to our forwards. We have a lot of talent up front, so we just need to get them the puck on their stick.

Gregor: How much did you know about Connor McDavid before playing with him, and what surprised you the most about what he did in his second NHL season?

Russell: I didn’t know a whole lot. He got injured for a big part of his first year. I showed up and he was named captain right away, and honestly, when I came in, I just couldn’t believe the character of the kid and the presence he had at his age. He’s definitely the leader on our team and the guy we look towards whether it’s off or on the ice. Obviously, he has a good supporting cast of leadership, but when you practice with the guy every day not much surprises you. He’s an incredible guy and an incredible talent. He’s obviously the drive of our team.

ANALYTICS

Gregor: You mentioned you watch a lot of film. Analytics have become a huge part of the game, do you focus on them? Do you break down what the team presents as analytics, and do you see areas of your game you can improve based on what the those numbers suggest?

Russell: Yeah, we have some stats in our room as a team and individually. We’re always looking to get better and I’m the same. If I can do anything to get better I’m going to do it. But most of the video is just with the coaches and things they see and things they pick up on that can help you. Sometimes it’s just watching yourself as well. You can get some bad habits that you don’t realize you’re doing, but they show up on video. You can knock them out pretty quickly if you watch the video. But, yes with the analytics there are obviously things that I can clean up and I’m going to focus on that this summer and in practice.

Gregor: Was there anything this on video that the coaches pointed out where you thought “I’m doing that again,” and how long did it take you to remove it?

Russell: I think there were lots of things, especially with the schedule this year. We didn’t have a lot of quality practice time. We relied a lot on video and there were multiple occasions, not just for myself but for other guys, where you feel like you’re struggling a bit and barely treading water. I would just go back to watching video and you sit down with the coaches and you figure it out and you get it solved. Being too cautious in offensive situations was one for me, and sometimes forcing passes when I had time to keep skating. We have a really good coaching staff who will do anything to help us out.

***The Oilers have a much more practice-friendly schedule early in the season. They open the season October 4th versus Calgary. Then they have two days off before playing Vancouver and Winnipeg on the 7th and 9th, followed by four days off. Then they play Ottawa and get another two-day break. They have more one two-day break and a three-day break before the end of October.  They only have 10 games in the 31 days of October. Last season, the Oilers started the season on October 12th and had nine games in the month of October. The coaches will have ample time to work on things as a team, but also individually. Russell should have ample time to work on re-establishing his offensive instincts in the first month of the season.**

Gregor: Now have you looked at the upcoming schedule yet?

Russell: I haven’t yet because I just wasn’t sure where I was going to be.

Gregor: Well I’m going to inform you on something. The Edmonton Oilers first trip to Vegas is a Saturday night. It’s January 13th, which happens to be McDavid’s 21st birthday, and then you have six days off. Seems like a good time for a team party in Vegas?

Russell: (Laughs) I don’t know, I don’t run the ship there. I’m sure that at that time we’ll be focussing on our push for the playoffs.

Gregor (laughs): But it’s a bye week, so you have to take it off. Even if you want to practice, you can’t.

Russell: Well I don’t know, I don’t know how to answer that but (laughs)…it presents a unique opportunity for him. (laughs).

WRAP UP

I believe players are much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses than people think, and just like all of us, it is not easy to just change a bad habit or routine. Russell has become more of a defensive-minded player the past few seasons. Once the game is going and the with the speed of the game so high, it is easy to revert back to what he feels most confident in. He and the coaches will need to work hard at encouraging him to use his offensive instincts. I believe they are still there, but he has buried them the past few seasons. He will need to be encouraged to take a few more risks, and if the odd one leads to an odd-man rush, he and the coaches need to remain confident.

I find too often in hockey people, including coaches and players, focus so much on the one or two bad plays and overlook the numerous good ones a player makes. No player is perfect and as the speed of the game increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to make the right play all the time. The biggest mistake we can make is to overvalue and over-analyze a mistake. One incorrect play should not overshadow good plays. It shouldn’t be a 1:5 ratio, but often when a bad play is made it gets discussed five or ten times more often than a good play.

I wish all the readers a wonderful Canada Day. I hope you celebrate on Saturday. We are blessed to live in such a wonderful country. Many of us were lucky to have been born here instead of in a country without freedom or rights. Canada is 150 years young on Saturday and I hope you have a great time celebrating with family and friends. Have a great weekend Oilersnation.

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  • tileguy

    JG says “I find too often in hockey people, including coaches and players, focus so much on the one or two bad plays and overlook the numerous good ones a player makes”
    Soo true, especially playing in a fish bowl market. I find this statement applies quite a bit to Eric Gryba as well. In Chia we trust.

  • QuitForRealThisTime

    Off topic but interesting that Cammalleri was just bought out. NJ has only 7 forwards signed for next season. UFA splash or another blockbuster trade perhaps? My guesses is Radulov and Kovelchuk will be in NJ next year. Maybe Duchene for Hall trade haha

  • ScottV

    Russell is better than the analytics guys suggest, but there are issues even on the d side of things. He makes adjustments to his game to play to his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. Example – he plays the puck a lot, giving up more stable focus toward playing a man (which requires physicality he doesn’t have), with a secondary focus toward playing the puck – if becomes available. The most stable way for a d man to deal with a net front opposition threat, is to be 230 lbs – box the threat out, let the goaltender see and deal with an incoming shot from outside, maintain the box out and focus on the man throughout any rebound possibilities and release on the man when clear or a clean opportunity to gain possession of the puck. Russell can’t box out – so – he releases on the opposition man at net – fronting him – to try and block the incoming shot from outside. This is an example of outright playing the puck. He’s pretty good at and gets away with it a lot, but its an awful fast moving little thing that can fit through small spaces and bounce around – like on the stick of the guy you would maybe prefer he could box out. With Sekera out – I understand the need to keep him around. Otherwise – would have been in the camp of those who would have let him walk. I prefer the stability of the 230 lb guy who can play the man and pick up loose pucks when good defending, makes it readily available.

    • Redbird62

      Well there are only 25 defenseman who played more that 60 games last year in the NHL listed at more than 220 lbs, all teams have to make due with some lighter defenseman. And Russell does play physical enough from time to time. If hits per game logged on the NHL stats page are an indication (I believe they get credit if the hit causes a change in possession), Russell got credit for an average of 1 hit per game, which is quite a bit more than Sekera, Klefbom and half the Norris vote receivers. His methods this last season resulted in the lowest goals against per 60 of all Oilers’ D, and that’s the primary objective when defending. While his goals for per 60 was lowest on the team, his GF% was middle of the pack. Indications are Oilers management had access to way more sophisticated analytics that what the average blogger uses and liked what they saw. Hopefully he can improve on contributing to the offense with little to no decline in defense.

      • Rock11

        While I appreciate the effort to back up your claims with more than because I saw him good I do have a couple of counterpoints. While 230lbs is huge and you don’t need to be that big it helps to be more than 180. Russell was one of only 2 regular Dmen in the league under that size. He isn’t “not big” he is small. This does impact how he has to play the game. He does overcome it to some degree but he is limited because of his stature.
        As for the Goals/60. That number for Russell is fuelled by and absurdly high save% by Talbot when KR is on the ice. These types of things have proven not to be consistently repeatable and I would expect some regression this year.

        • Redbird62

          I recognize he is small but he plays tougher than his stature. If he had said 210 + instead of 235, I would probably have let it pass. Given that the median SV% of regular NHL defenseman was around 92.4% and there were 20 players higher the Russell, including Sekera, I think absurdly high is a stretch. I agree luck plays a part in it, but I don’t buy the argument that all variation in on ice save percentage is luck. Maybe Russell’s on ice save percentage regresses somewhat. That would be okay if it comes with at least an equal or greater improvement in offense.

          • Rock11

            I’ll assume your research is right on the number of guys higher than KR in sv% but would like to point out that there were probably 200+ Dmen on that list and only 20 were higher. I will retract absurdly and offer extremely in its place.

          • Not a First Tier Fan

            It would be interesting to see the SV% of goalies that Kris has played in front of in the past compared to their averages… Was it just Talbot last year or do goalies generally have a better save percentage with Russel on defence? Is this somewhere that analytics could help Kris Russel’s case?

  • camdog

    Russell had a good year as an Oiler last year. Given the number of d-man that have played bad for the Oilers over the last number of years the negativity surrounding Russell would be classified as a statistical bias. Why were there not 50 stories written on any of the other d-man? It’s contradictory that those that preach a scientific model for evaluating players, spend so much time evaluating and looking for data on one player.

  • Tombstone

    Klefbom-Benning
    Nurse-Larsson
    Russell-Fayne/Gryba

    No way Fayne is sent down to the AHL. At $3.6mil there is no excuse why he can’t at least play as a #6D for half of the games.
    One good thing about the Oilers D is that Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, and Benning are all trending upwards.