I’ve had a nice quiet summer. I got to do a little travelling around Europe and spent many weekend days cooking large pieces of meat with fire. Everything was wonderful and then my good friend Baggedmilk decides to remind me that Kris Russell is probably going to be the Oilers’ number 3 defender until Christmas with this article here.
I get it. I can’t have nice things. Now, I think it’s well documented exactly what I think about the player, his ability to defend, his impact on offence, and how things stand to play out with Sekera injured. No need to rehash that. All we can do is drink more frequently and white-knuckle our way through the next three or four months/years.
However, one thing that stuck out in my mind from Baggedmilk’s article was the suggestion that Russell wants to play better and do more this season. It strikes me as odd in both that we might expect a player to get remarkably better after the age of 30 and also that NOW is the time it would happen. Why not last year when he was on a 1-year deal trying to prove his worth to the NHL?
Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? I’m not a gipsy, I don’t know the future. Is it reasonable to assume or even hope? Ehhhhh.
I wanted to look at a list of comparables for Kris Russell based on some relatively generic accomplishments in the NHL. I searched (using Hockey-Reference) for NHL defenders who played their first 10 seasons in the NHL from ages 20 to 30, who played at least 500 games, and who produced between 0.27 and 0.31 points per game. I set the dates to between 1996-1997 to 2016-2017 so I’ve had the last 20 years of hockey to look at and we aren’t comparing eras too far out.
The computer spat out 10 names. Kris Russell was one of them.
- Kris Russell 2007-2017
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic 2007-2016
- Dan Girardi 2006-2015
- Braydon Coburn 2005-2015
- Trevor Daley 2003-2014
- Keith Ballard 2005-2013
- Dmitri Kalinin 2000-2009
- Eric Brewer 1999-2009
- Toni Lydman 2000-2008
- Danny Markov 1997-2007
A quick perusal of the list, I think, shows a solid mix of talent and impact. There’s certainly a range of effectiveness. I’d place Vlasic at the head of the class and move downwards from there. The question for me, though, was not how do I rate them but what did these players accomplish after 30? Also, how are they similar and how are they different from Russell?
After all, the next four years of the Russell contract take him from 30 to almost his 34th birthday. The post-30 years aren’t always kind to professional athletes, with a few exceptions. Thankfully, sports nutrition and science, on the whole, is helping players maintain their careers better than they did in the past, but time is still the enemy.
So what have we got from this list? Working from the bottom upwards:
Danny Markov played eight more professional seasons after turning 30! Unfortunately, only one such season was in the NHL. He was a Detroit Red Wing in 2006-2007 and appeared in 66 games scoring 4-12-16. After that he spent the majority of his playing days in Moscow. Physically, the 5’11”, 176-pound defender fits the slight build of Russell.
Toni Lydman played six more seasons after his 30th birthday between the Sabres and the Ducks. He managed to keep his modest offensive contributions going for his early 30’s, but it all fell apart in his final two seasons with Anaheim. From a fancy stats perspective, he had a negative impact relative to teammates with both the Sabres and the Ducks in the last half of his career. His early career pre-dates the fancy stats era so it’s difficult to tell if that was a change or a continuation.
Eric Brewer was a favorite of mine as a young man. I thought he was going to develop into an awesome player, but never really did add that offense to his game. At 6’4” and 215 pounds, he’s not a great fit to Russell physically. Frankly, I wouldn’t say they are very comparable. Still, he did go on to play seven more years in the NHL after he turned 30 years old, but the final two were restricted to just 28 and 18 games. During none of his seasons post-30 did he have a positive impact on possession relative to his teammates.
Dmitri Kalinin played eight more years after he turned 30. Bad News: He was in the KHL at 29. At 6’3” and 206 pounds he’s also not physically similar to Russell. He was really only similar in that they both were brutal by possession metric standards.
Keith Ballard was a little bigger than Russell but he was still under 6 feet and below the 200-pound threshold. Ballard only managed to play another two seasons after turning 30, though his career was cut short after a catastrophic injury left him fighting post-concussion syndrome. The video of the injury is haunting at times. Ballard had poor shot attempt metrics for as far back as the record shows. Post-30 he went from being a 15 minute a night defender to a 13 minute a night defender.
Trevor Daley is an interesting player as a Russell comparison because they do have a fair amount of similarities. They are both historically poor possession players with many commendations based on their character. Since turning 30, Daley has actually had his best offensive season and his worst possession season and they were the same season. In the four years since he turned 30, he’s only played 70 or more games just one time. However, he’s still averaging 20 minutes per night for the Penguins when he does play. With Back-to-back- Stanley Cups to his name, it goes to show teams can still find ways to win with flawed defenses (if you have generational talent on your side).
Braydon Coburn was a defender Oiler fans coveted for quite a while to be that shutdown option. He’s significantly larger than Russell at 6’5” and 225 pounds and not a great comparable. While it’s true that his relative metrics have gone down since joining the Lightning and turning 30, Coburn also starts a significant portion of his shifts in the defensive zone. One thing to note in the negative, he went from a 20 minute a night mainstay to 16:45 a night after that 30th birthday.
Dan Girardi is a name that gives fancy stats observers fevers. He has been a brutal possession player for a very long time and is in that regard even worse than Russell. In his mid-20’s he was playing well over 20 minutes a night, but he’s been in steep decline since turning 30. He is bigger and taller than Russell but in many other respects he’s a good fit as a comparable. Last year he was just 32 years old but even still was just a shadow of himself. It’s difficult to see him salvaging his reputation, but the Lightning have given him a chance.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the best defender on this list by a mile, in my opinion. He’s a medium sized blueliner with a focus on shutting down the top players on the other team. He probably should have gotten more Norris votes in his lifetime, but his lack of offense is going to hold him back in that regard. He just turned 30 in March, so we wonder what happens to his effectiveness on the other side of 30 as well. Is he a comparable for Russell? I really don’t think so. They are similar in individual offense but in terms of impact, it couldn’t be more different.
So we’ve got this list of 10 defenders which includes Russell. Of the nine non-Russell players one just turned 30 (Vlasic), so he doesn’t add much to the conversation about what to expect moving forward. Another three are so different from Russell physically that they make poor matches (Kalinin, Brewer, Coburn). Of the remaining five players, two were out of the NHL within two seasons after turning 30 (Markov, Ballard). Of the three that remain from the list we have Trevor Daley, Dan Girardi, and Toni Lydman.
The reality is that this list of Russell-like players doesn’t bolster the confidence for what a post-30-year-old Russell can bring to the table. All of the players had lost a step or some level of effectiveness. I think best-case scenario for the Oilers is a Trevor Daley/Toni Lydman situation where the team can overcome flaws and best complement him with better teammates. As far as the prospects of playing “better” goes, I’d say that’s a pretty long shot to make.
So there are the nine players who vaguely resemble Kris Russell in terms of games and points over the same ages and what they accomplished after turning 30.