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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Off the Top of My Head

I’ve long admired Kris Russell of the Edmonton Oilers because he’s carved out an NHL career spanning 890 games by deciding he was willing to do the dirty work after it became obvious the skills that got him to The Show weren’t going to be enough to keep him there. A lot of players have been lost in that transition.

A two-time WHL defenceman of the year and a league MVP during four seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers, Russell was drafted 67th overall by Columbus in 2005. The kid from Caroline thought he might have a chance to put up some points with the Blue Jackets and run the power play in Ohio. You know, the fancy stuff. It wasn’t to be. 

All these years later, after stops in St. Louis, Calgary and Dallas on his way to Edmonton, Russell put an exclamation mark on the career he built with a willingness to adapt and do whatever it took against the Vegas Golden Knights last night. At 34, Russell moved ahead of Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks as the NHL’s career leader in blocked shots in the first period. Russell came in with 1,997, one behind Seabrook, and added three more before the first intermission to reach 2,000. That’s a lot of frozen rubber. A lot of pain. 

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“I came in as kind of an offensive guy,” Russell said before the game. “I tried that in Columbus, tried working my way up trying to be that same player. Things had to change. I wasn’t playing as much, and then I got traded (to St. Louis). They kind of put me in more of a defensive role. I just grabbed it, trying to do anything I could . . . it bought me a few more years. I’m thankful for it.”

TOUGH GIG

If there’s more of a grunt stat than blocking shots, I can’t think of what it is. That said, it’s a skill valued by coaches and teammates even if there’s a segment of fans who shrug at it. There were some nerds a few years back who took particular delight in running down Russell online at every opportunity – they liked Martin Marincin better. When he put a puck into his own net in a 6-4 loss to Toronto in November of 2017, they went after him. I’ll never forget the reaction from within the dressing room, notably from former coach Todd McLellan.

“Kris Russell is a character individual and that’s why our team cares so much about him,” McLellan said. “Whoever’s criticizing this individual probably has never played a competitive sport in their life and if they have and they’ve been perfect and that event never occurred to them, then they should be in the Hall of Fame somewhere. Mistakes happen.

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“I know all the analytic nerds out there find ways to run him into the ground, but he means a lot to our team. Every single one of those players, regardless of the goal the other night he put into his own net, will tell you that any day in any place. So, analytics that, if you want.”

Saturday in Vegas with Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith and Slater Koekkoek all out with injuries, Russell again played more minutes than coach Dave Tippett can reasonably expect from him on a regular basis at this point in his career. No problem. Whatever Russell’s got, his team will get. That’s the storyline of his career.

“It’s a commitment from a player to put his body on the line to help the team win,” Tippett said. “And there’s something to be said for that.”

GETTING STARTED

Nov 17, 2021; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat (53) prepares for a face off against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

At 6-12-2 going into action against Columbus Friday, history tells us the season was pretty much over for the Vancouver Canucks at the quarter-point in terms of making the playoffs. Possible? Sure. Likely? No. Today, the odds are even longer at 6-13-2 after a 4-2 loss to the Jackets.

Oilers’ fans can relate. Bad starts in the first 20 games of seasons during the Decade of Darkness were significant factors in the Oilers missing the post-season for 10 consecutive years, 2006-07 to 2016-17. If the Canucks miss the playoffs again this season, it’ll mark the seventh time in the last nine years they’ve come up short.

In 2014-15, the Oilers were 6-12-2 in their first 20 games under Dallas Eakins. In 2010-11, they were even worse at 5-11-4 under Tom Renney. The low point in the DOD was 2013-14 under Eakins when they went 4-14-2. Get started like that and you’re done. The Canucks started this faceplant with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Oilers in their first game of the season Oct. 13

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AND . . .

  • Some tough news out of Saskatchewan Friday with word former Edmonton Oil Kings’ captain Matt Swaby has passed away at age 34. Swaby, who played with the Oil Kings in 2007-08 and then went on to play at the University of Saskatchewan for three years, is survived by his wife Carla and sons Thomas, Blake and Kody.
  • A shout out to long-time Pittsburgh sportswriter Rob Rossi. Rossi, a veteran scribe who is writing for The Athletic these days, has been struggling with some medical issues for several weeks. Get well soon, Rob. 

Previously by Robin Brownlee