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Photo Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Russell: 2018-19 Season in Review

With each passing day through this rain-soaked summer here in Edmonton, we inch closer and closer to the start of a new Oilers season, distancing ourselves from the train-wreck that was the 2018-19 campaign. But we can still glean some info from the awful 2018-19 season that can give us an idea about how some players might perform this upcoming season, and how the team as a whole will do.

So barring an off-season trade, which with each passing day is seeming less and less likely, we can expect to see this man patrolling the blue-line in the Oilers Top 4: Kris Russell.

GP G A P +/- Blocks Blocks/GM Hits Hits/GM TOI/GM
72 3 13 16 5 185 2.6 93 1.3 20:26

Other than Milan Lucic, Russell might be the next most polarizing player on the roster, some (many?) believing that his $4.5 cap hit is an over-payment for a one-trick player who doesn’t belong in the top 4. The biggest reason for this opinion on Russell is, without a doubt, because he’s most often associated with shot-blocking, something that many view as overrated. He’s a very good skater, and does possess decent puck-moving skills, but his most revered (or despised?) attribute is his shot-blocking, something he’s been proficient at over the past six seasons.

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How proficient you ask? Well, let’s take a look:

Season Blocks GP PTS
2013-14 (CGY) 201 (3rd overall) 68 29
2014-15 (CGY) 283 (1st overall) 79 34
2015-16 (CGY/DAL) 210 (2nd overall) 62 19
2016-17 (EDM) 213 (1st overall) 68 13
2017-18 (EDM) 223 (1st overall) 78 21
2018-19 (EDM) 185 (3rd) 72 16

Since the 2013-14 season through this past one, Russell leads the league with a total amount of blocks at 1315. Why is that impressive/idiotic? The player at second, Dan Girardi, has 982. A quick Mad Minute tells us that Russell has 333 more blocks than the next closest player over six seasons.

The knock on Russell’s best attribute is that many believe that it’s an out-dated, overrated stat. FWIW, other players that appear on that top ten list over the past six seasons include John Carlson (930, fifth overall), Roman Josi (927, sixth overall), Alex Pietrangelo (922, seventh overall), Alex Goligoski (921, ninth overall), and last season’s Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano (913, tenth overall). So it can perhaps be an overrated stat, but it certainly isn’t useless.

Now clearly, the main difference with Russell and these other players is that they are offensive catalysts, and Russell is often branded as an offensive blackhole. Let’s see if the advanced numbers prove that.

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(All counts at Even Strength)

ES TOI: 1313:52

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Starts
45.13 50.91 46.89 218/249 46.68 31/33 48.44 9.64 .919 1.016 43.45

Not great, but not as deep in the tank as some might think (certainly not as deep as it would seem with the way Russell’s slandered by the fan base). The goal percentage is actually shockingly high, with a very average on-ice shooting percentage. The goalie numbers are decent too, resulting in a PDO that is right where you want it to be and quite sustainable.

But those counts only tell part of the story, so let’s look at how Russell performed relative to the rest of the team:

CF%Rel SCF%Rel GF%Rel HDCF%Rel HDGF%Rel
-5.01 -2.45 5.19 -2.71 1.65

What some might expect: in the red as far as possession counts go, with chances directed more often towards the Oilers’ net rather than their opponents’. But that number is skewed from the high rate of shots that Russell blocks as opposed to him taking them away. That might explain why the goal scoring is a positive rate despite more Corsi chances against: Russell style still stops goals against and moves them up the ice. With a minimum of 500 minutes played, Russell had the fifth highest on-ice save percentage on the team.

But as always, particularly with defensemen, the relative numbers can only tell so much of the story. So let’s look at how Russell performed with his most frequent defensive partners.

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(Again, all counts at Even Strength)

w/ Darnell Nurse

ES TOI Together: 1079:52

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Starts
45.37 50.60 46.59 175/212 45.22 25/27 48.08 8.94 .925 1.015 28.62

With that amount of time together, Nurse and Russell were pretty much one player on the blueline. The most intriguing count that stands out is the goalie save percentage: incredibly high for a pairing that plays so often together, and started almost always in the defensive zone, making it more the rule than the exception. Goals were on the right side of the line too, which is also impressive for such a frequent pairing despite a slightly low on-ice shooting percentage.

(FWIW, despite the common belief that Nurse is cursed with playing with Russell and is held back because it, both players’ numbers are actually worse away from one another).

w/ Oscar Klefbom

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ES TOI Together: 61:58

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Starts%
42.34 83.33 59.57 13/8 61.90 4/0 100.00 15.15 .970 1.121 15.38

An incredible drop-off from Nurse, Klefbom is the only other d-man that Russell played more than an hour next to. That being said, with these two on the ice possession wasn’t ideal, but goals were scored, and the goalies did not suffer behind them despite barely ever starting in the offensive zone.

w/ Kevin Gravel

ES TOI Together: 48:30

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Start%
50.98 80.00 48.89 9/6 60.00 1/1 50.00 14.29 .952 1.095 43.90

Interesting that Russell’s third most frequent partner is someone who likely won’t be on the team next year, but it’s worth looking at because here we see more of the same: goals were scored (though a very high on-ice shooting percentage) and the goalies looked good behind them. Curiously, this was the first partner that saw the Corsi percentage match the goal output. Not enough time to block all those shots, I suppose…

w/ Anyone Else…

Adam Larsson: 26:15

Matthew Benning: 22:57

Andrej Sekera: 22:10

Evan Bouchard: 16:31

Jason Garrison: 16:19

It’s somewhat fascinating to see the disproportionate amount of time that Russell played with Nurse and nearly nobody else. Clearly both McLellan and Hitchcock trusted the Russell-Nurse pairing through thick and thin.

Final Thought

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both head coaches last season stuck with the Russell-Nurse throughout the year. As I said above, there seems to be a common opinion that Russell has been a lead weight around Darnell’s neck, but is it possible that they actually like playing with one another? I’m thinking that 1079+ minutes together might suggest that might be the case.

Personally, I think Russell gets a bad rap. True, he’s on the wrong side of thirty, and with his style of play the decline will likely show sooner rather than later (if not already), and with the buy-out of Andrej Sekera, Russell remains as as the only player with a No-Trade Clause on the team.

It’s hard to justify keeping a player who many think should be a bottom-pairing, whose making $4mil on a team that’s capped out, who doesn’t contribute enough offensively and only blocks shots. But despite the perceived out-dated style of play, for a team whose goaltending was called into question throughout the season, the goalies constantly had solid numbers while Russell was on the ice, regardless on who he was paired with. Goals were also scored more often than they were against with Russell on the ice, which is contrary the perception of many Oilers’ fans that Russell is a hindrance.

Russell’s name has come up regularly in off-season trade rumours, and it’s understandable considering his cap hit and the Oilers’ current cap situation. But, I do think that he still has value with this roster, and if he does get dealt, I hope it’s more than just for the sake of dumping his contract and having the cap space just because. If the point is to make the playoffs in 2020, doing that will not help accomplish that goal.

Kris Russell will.

Traditional stats courtesy of nhl.com                                                                                                                   Advanced counts courtesy of naturalstattrick.com                                                                                                   Salary Cap information courtesy of puckpedia.com

  • Ever the Optimist

    Nicely said. One more point is this is all with him playing on his wrong side. I think he will show his naysayers wrong if instead of Nurse he pairs up with a rookie. Run Nurse and Benning on the 2nd pair and then Russell on the third.

  • Fireball

    In the Early part of the story you say Russell has a 4.5 million dollar cap hit ? Later you say 4 ? 16000000 over 4 years is 4 mill per which is what’s listed at cap friendly.. Shock value ??

    • Fireball

      Either way.. could you post the team stats for when Russell wasn’t in the lineup when he got hurt in Colorado? If I recall they went into a spiral .. much contributed to Kleff getting hurt as well but I also recall the team having a some resurgence out of that rut once Russell came back. Personally I think trading Russell would be a big mistake until we figure out what we got in Persson, Jones, Bouchard, and the rest of the kids. The worst case Scenario is expecting them to play higher in the lineup because they have to. If your looking at another D to fill that role outside of the organization I highly doubt we could add a D that does what Russell does and have money left over to add a piece in the forward group or otherwise. I get a kick out of everyone who has jumped on the Sekura buyout as bad thing yet think Russell should be gone because he’s a four mill hit. I do not take away from Sekuras value but for what he’s contributed over the last 2 seasons at 5.5 mill is far far worst than what Russell offers at 4. In a ideal world where cap didn’t matter I’d take Sekura all day even if your risking him being injured again.. but that’s not the case.. and the little Sekura had played was on third pair. Many suggested keeping him for a mentor on the third pair at 5.5 million per yet Dog Russell as third pair at best and is making to much at 4 mill per.. to point out Russell has played second pair 90% of his time in Edmonton and even if he gets bumped to third pair by a Bouchard or others this year he will still be 1.5 million cheaper on the third pair than Sekura was. Time for some people to wipe the S$&@ out of their eyes. Forget which player you like and look at what they do for the team. I’m not saying I wouldn’t trade Russell because I would.. but I don’t see the scenario at this point where the team actually improves., I’m guessing that’s why the most Successful NHL GM of the last 22 years bought out Sekura N to this point still has Russell penciled in on opening night.. Just sayin

      • Fireball

        On the mentor side of things.. there’s not many people in the league with the heart and soul of Kris Russell.. that guy would eat pucks for his teammates and gives 100% effort every night. He doesn’t have Norris Skill but he has Iron Man heart n soul. That’s a perfect mentor in my books

          • Fireball

            Kids have to earn that place ! It can’t be gifted. I see Russell becoming disposable as early as this year but until you actually see the kids play and take it you can’t gift it. Holland said the spots are there for anyone who wants them but they have to take them. This is where the Oilers have made big mistakes in the past.. moving guys out and expecting a kid to eat the mins., but then if they can’t its pretty hard to correct mid season.. when you have the depth and a kid steals it.. that’s a good problem and one that leaves with a trade option down the road. I’m sure if that happens during this season someone will be in need of a Kris Russell .. if because of injury or they tried to start the year with someone that wasn’t capable of the role they were given..

        • Fireball

          So you would just pencil in one of the kids ?? Get rid of Russell before the season even starts ?? Your giving that second pair NHL spot to players who have yet to make the NHL ??

          • Ass Eatn Szn 69

            Perssons is 25 and played pro hockey in sweden, you see what he can do at camp. I am confident in Bouchard and Bear being better. Ethan Bear was drafted 4 years ago, this is not someone coming out of his draft.

            Russel is at best a number 6, so he is replacement. Ridding the team of his contract and signing gardiner for a year puts the team in a much better situation.

      • btrain

        If you look at the contract structure of both players you can see why Sekera was chosen over Russell. Although both would give the Oil an immediate 3mill in cap space this season, next season and beyond is where they differ. Sekera was singed before Chiarelli put together the trifecta contract special of overpay, NMC, and buyout protection we see with the Lucic, Russell, and Koskinen signings. As a result, rather than maintaining the 3mill in savings like Sekera after year one, Russell’s buyout would come back to haunt them in short order, costing the Oil 3.416mill against the cap the very next season, making a buyout pretty close to pointless. It’s basically a smaller scale (term/dollars) Lucic deal.

        Anyway, given the contract structure, Russell wasn’t even an option to buyout. So I am not sure there is much reason to argue on ice-value or debate who should have stayed, who should have gone between these two if buyout was the only option left. Also, its not as simple to suggest a 1.5 savings to stick with Russell when Sekera is now costing the team 8 million against the cap over the next 4 seasons.

  • Ass Eatn Szn 69

    nope, with todays game, even with less experience the skill and ability to attack the defending blue line and move the puck out means, jones, perssons, bouchard and bear are all a better option for the oilers and will be a bigger help to make the playoffs.

    Putting the puck on Connors stick in flight is the absolute largest difference maker in GF to GA

  • TKB2677

    I don’t hate Russell, I don’t like him, I just see him as he is. He’s a serviceable 4-5 dman that has some versatility. In a perfect world, he’s in your 3rd pair making at least 1.5 less. But given the fact he can play in your top 4 and you as a team can be OK, I am not one of those who thinks he’s grossly overpaid. But at the same time, I am not like some media guys who think the Oilers shouldn’t trade him. If you can trade him, I think you should take it. He’s better when he is on his natural left side. The Oilers are loaded on the left side so I think they could easily replace him on the 3rd pair. Like a Jones. I think Holland has done a pretty decent job at improving the roster given the limitations he had. Right now I think the Oilers if things go right have a chance to squeak into the playoffs. if the Oilers got a 3rd line center, they would be a legit playoff team. If you could trade Russell and maybe a bit piece to get a 3rd line center, that would be awesome. If you could trade Russell and just get back something, that would open up cap space to have the cushion Holland wants plus you could go out and sign a guy like Brassard, maybe Sheahan who are out there and you would be able to get on the cheap. Then on defense, I would try and target a team that has extra right shots. As an example Florida who doesn’t have a ton of cap space, has extra right shots and with the signing of Stralman, that bumps down Pysyk who has been a top 4 guy, skates well, can move the puck a bit, doesn’t put up points but could play as your #4 and is a UFA at the end of this season.

    • TKB2677

      Why is that? What evidence is there that Sekera is capable of playing on the second pair? The guy had back to back MAJOR injuries to his legs. Blew out the worst knee ligament you can, then torn his Achiles. For an athlete that counts on his legs, those are the worst 2 injuries you can get. There was a worry he may never play in the NHL again. So last year he proved that he can play in the 3rd pairing, playing 3rd pairing mins against low end competition and do OK.

      Russell while not idea in the second pair can play in the second pair and give you at times decent minutes. There is absolutely no evidence that would suggest that Sekera would be capable of playing in the second pairing anymore given his age and the injuries he’s had. It would have been foolish for the Oilers to think Sekera could play in the second pairing.

  • Vanhellian

    I admire Russell’s heart and hustle but too often watch him get pushed off the puck or get running around looking lost. Third pairing, nothing more imo.

  • ponokanocker

    You lost me at, “does possess decent puck-moving skills”. The biggest issue is he flips the puck out, possession is lost, and the other team comes back into the Oiler’s end for another attempt to score.

  • OilCan2

    The numbers tell the truth. He is solid when D zone starts are handed to him. Sliding in front of MORE SHOTS than ANYONE in the last five seasons will endear you to your goalies and forwards. We have a keeper here folks. Next season three D prospects in Bear, Jones & Lagesson better be ready for prime time because they are waiver bait then. Persson and the prospects will have a shot at the Sekera gap and someone will step in as a call up during the campaign. I could see Ken moving one of the three at the deadline for a draft pick because there will be a GM desperate for D next winter.

  • Moneyball

    Russell is worth the money. He plays hard every night and is not a bad dean at all. The people that believe hockey is a game like baseball and can be judged solely on stats are the only ones on Russel’s back. Unfortunately these are the same people that brought us Mark Fayne as the best analytics dman available. Overall Russell is the 4th best dman on the Oilers and a good dman for any team to have.

  • TKB2677

    While I have never been the biggest Russell fan, I’d be curious to know what his numbers would be like if he didn’t have to play his opposite side. He’s pretty much exclusively played the right side since being on the Oilers. The stats guys crush him because his numbers look bad but every stats guy admits playing your opposite side makes everything harder.

  • Synthesis

    Rusty is an amusing dude.
    Particularly his capacity to enrage those who consider themselves advanced stats advocates.
    Also, his starfish pose needs to be a mural in Ford Hall. Its a uniquely Edmonton thing… to try hard and fail.