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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Year in Review: Kris Russell can thrive so long as he’s in the right role

This is one part of a player-by-player Year in Review series we’ll be doing over the next couple months as we look back on the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers season. 

2017-18 Edmonton Oilers No. 4: Kris Russell 

GP: 78 – G: 4, A: 17, PTS: 21

One of Peter Chiarelli’s better moves as Edmonton’s general manager was the low-risk signing of Kris Russell to a one-year, $3.1 million deal prior to the start of the 2016-17. Russell, while lauded for having poor fancy stats, played alongside Andrej Sekera and was ultimately the final piece to a thoroughly solid Oilers blueline.

Chiarelli decided to give Russell a four-year, $16 million deal the following off-season. With his partner Sekera set to miss the first half of the season, Chiarelli figured that Russell’s veteran presence was necessary for Edmonton’s lineup. But, in 2017-18, without his familiar partner, Russell wasn’t as effective as he was in the previous season.

Russell was the one who suffered the most due to Sekera’s absence. The two of them were stellar together in 2016-17. They played 842:16 even strength minutes together, broke even on unblocked shot attempts percentage, and had a whopping 62.5 Goals For percentage. Without Sekera, Russell was left in flux. He didn’t have a true partner or defined role, really, for the entirety of the season.

Per Natural Stat Trick, his most common partner was Darnell Nurse, as the duo logged 426:13 together. With Russell, Nurse posted a 47.4 Goals For percentage. With anybody else, his Goals For percentage rocketed to 57.1. Russell’s other most common partner was Oscar Klefbom. The two played 217:22 together at even strength and had a horrendous 36.8 Goals For percentage. Klefbom’s Goals For percentage without Russell was a modest 45.9.

Both of those pairings represent Russell sliding up in the lineup into a top-four role. His best results came when playing roughly 180 combined even strength minutes with Eric Gryba or Yohann Auvitu on the team’s third pairing. When with those two, Russell put up a very steady 53.3 Goals For percentage and a close-to-even unblocked shot attempt differential. It’s when he slid up in the lineup and took on a bigger role than Russell started to struggle and ultimately assisted in catering both Nurse and Klefbom’s results.

Before Sekera was hurt, the Oilers appeared to be rolling into 2018-19 with a blueline of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning, and Sekera and Russell, which is identical to the one that saw so much success during the team’s playoff run in 2017. With Sekera sidelined for potentially the entire season, the Oilers are now in a virtually identical situation as they were this time last year, figuring out how to fill the gaping hole his injury leaves on the blueline.

Now, yet again, Russell is heading into the season without a partner. We know from his history that he can thrive in a defensive, third-pairing, penalty killing role. As we learned last year, when Russell has moved up the lineup, he tends to struggle. Despite the fact that Sekera’s injury might create a need for him to slide up the depth chart, the Oilers need to keep him in a role in which he can thrive.

So, ultimately, what we learned from last season is that Edmonton has a player in Russell who can anchor the team’s third pair. Now with Sekera injured, the team needs to find somebody who can play alongside him on that third pair.

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  • OriginalPouzar

    Even though I don’t like Russell on the right side as he is much less effective on his right side (in particular transitioning the puck up the ice), I would have been fine with a 3rd pairing of Sekera/Russell. In fact, I was quite excited as that had the potential to be the best 3rd pairing in the league (it was the 2nd pairing, really 1B, on a playoff team) – s/t Sekera’s health.

    Obviously we won’t get that pairing but, as long as Russell remains on the third pairing, he can be effective. This requires Benning to run with that 2RD job and it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to do that.

    With the Sekera injury, we really need the top 4 to stay mostly healthy this year. Russell can fill in for short stretches at 2LD but he is simply not good enough to play 2RD.

    • socaldave

      Yup. Matt Benning, Matthew f***ing Benning, is going to be the key to the back end this season. If he and Nurse (I have zero concerns about Darryl) can replicate 2016-2017, we’ll be fine. If not…. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA omg I feel sick

  • Redbird62

    More accurately, what I think can be said for Russell is that he could play a top 4 role on the right side when he had a skilled veteran like Sekera as his left partner, but playing his offside with Nurse or Klefbom as his partner did not pan out. Klefbom was struggling last year, in part due to his shoulder, and Nurse still needs to improve his ability to make the outlet pass. Nurse is very good at carrying it out, but since Russell playing on the right side doesn’t seem to pass it up well, he needs a left partner to whom he can pass it to who will then pass it up some of the time. This seemed to work with Sekera who could both pass and carry it up. I assume Klefbom and Nurse will be the top two left defenseman, so with Sekera out, is Russell your third pairing left D or right D since having him play right side ahead of Benning wouldn’t seem to work? Maybe if they bring in a guy like Toby Enstrom, who seems very comparable to Sekera (including injury vulnerability) Russell could be a good fit on the right with him. Would Enstrom come for just a 1 year deal? I have my doubts that Russell on the right side with a player like Gravel will work. I am not sure Russell is the steady left side veteran if they try and have Bear or Bouchard play either, though Russell was no worse than anyone else last season when paired with Bear in terms of possession or GF/GA.

  • Serious Gord

    He’s an adequate #6 dman – always needs to be the weaker player of the pair.

    And a #6 at 4 million is a massive overpay. (Especially when you know how desperately he wanted/wants to stay in Alberta)

    Without sekera and without any depth, barring a huge move by chia, Russell will be #4 or worse #5 where he is the better player on a pairing.

  • Oilman99

    Russell is one tough little S.O.B. that takes a lickin and keeps on tickin, any player in the dressing room would go to war with him. His value in the dressing is vastly under rated.

  • Bills Bills

    Well he can’t play third pair with Bouchard. That would be disastrous for EB. If he can split time with Bear and Gravel, maybe they can make it work if the rest of the 4 are punching above their weight all season and staying healthy.

  • Glencontrolurstik

    Why doesn’t the team actually ask Russell who or what type of player he’d like to play with?
    It’s not like he’s a rookie? He’s had a trip around the league on many teams & should know the type of player that suits him? In fact, I think he would have the best idea as to what type of player would play to his strengths… He has played as a defense partner with many players in the league. Ask him? At least that would give the team an idea of what type of player they are looking for.

  • OilCan2

    Whew; am I ever glad our new defensive and power play coachs will be deciding who plays where, with who and when. I already have Bouchard pencilled in on RD3 with Russell on LD3. Gravel and Bear skate with the team and get free popcorn most nights. If you want to go the extra forward then Bear goes to the Condors for a major role. The OHL/AHL/NHL rule will put two of Gravel/Bear/Jones in the A. I know this will get some flak but Bouchard has the most NHL ready playoff beard on the team. As much as I like McDavid he is a bit of a whisker wimp.

  • 18% body fat

    Why is Oilers nation so infatuated with how hard an Oilers player tries. Caggulia and Russel try. But they are terrible. How is a guy that is always laying on the ice and always getting score a good defenceman. The puck never leaves the zone in a controlled manner when it comes of his stick. Blocking shots is the goalies job. I don’t mind when a forward does it but when a defenseman is laying on the ice he has taken himself out of the play and confused the goalie.

    Russel is a number 7 d that can be replaced for 900k. Every year there is an equivalent d on the market or better that would sign a one year deal. Why did the idiot gm give him 4.

  • Abagofpucks

    Any one who is negative about this blog is a complete and utter ffffffooooooll.
    And i feel so sorry for you cos your wrong, and i feel sorry for you and you now who you are nuff said.

  • 2centz

    Umm by right role, you mean not on the right side, right? If Russell, Benning, Bear or Bouchard is our soulution for the second pair, right side. We are in major trouble. At least we own our 1st round pick next year…

    But on the flip side, if you were given the option of the Knights D-core that they had going into last season, or the Oilers D-core heading into this season, you’d still pick the Oilers, so anything is possible. The player the Oilers need to step up the most in Sekera’s absence, is Cam Talbot. C’mon Cam, give us a Fluery like performance this season, I believe in you brother!!