If there’s one player whose stock rose a ton internally this year, it was Kris Russell.
A newly-minted alternate captain, Russell was relied upon heavily this season in his pairing with Dennis Wideman – especially with the thinness of the blueline’s third pairing all-year (and moreso when Mark Giordano went down). When things got scary and uncertainty swirled around, Russell and Wideman were there to give the team some stability.
But was Russell as good as he appeared?
100 even-strength minutes together is the cut-off for my WOWY analysis.
So, the good news is that the player that Russell played by far the most win, Dennis Wideman, had better numbers with him. Hooray. The bad news is that outside of two exceptions – Josh Jooris and Paul Byron, both good possession players – everybody else was basically the same or worse with Russell than without.
Could some of that be based on deployment?
So, let’s be blunt here: Kris Russell (and Dennis Wideman) faced significantly softer opposition and easier deployments than Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie did. And they took it in the teeth, facing second and third line opponents, while Giordano and Brodie excelled despite facing tough opposition.
You could make an argument regarding the quality of teammates Russell and Wideman had, but Russell played 100+ even-strength minutes with 14 different forwards, and just two of them were appreciably better in tandem. And both of those guys, Jooris and Byron, have developed reputations as good possession players.
So either Russell isn’t amazing possession-wise, or every forward on the Flames isn’t amazing possession-wise. Or both. I’m not going to point to any one of these outcomes quite yet, because I haven’t dug into all of the year’s data yet, but I’m really hesitant to say that Jooris and Byron are the only forwards that can be possession difference-makers. I mean, Mikael Backlund was 8% worse with Kris Russell than without him. That’s nuts, and a bit scary.
Russell had a career-year in terms of scoring, though: 34 points in 79 games in the regular season and 7 points in 11 playoff games. 40% of his points came on the power-play. He was easily the lowest-scoring of Calgary’s main four defenders – his 20 points was well behind everyone else in the group; Wideman led with 35, so it’s not like the puck wasn’t going in when he was on the ice.
Kris Russell? He’s proven to be a pretty useful hockey player for the Flames this season. He blocks shots a ton, he plays a lot of minutes and he wears a letter, indicating that he’s probably a dude that his teammates like. The benefit to the Flames of leaning on Russell and Wideman so darn much this season is that they know their limitations now. In an ideal world, Russell is probably a #4 defender. Hopefully the Flames make some changes to the back-end in the off-season and shuffle things around a bit. Russell’s a good player, but he’s definitely not dragging his teammates to high-possession situations. It seems to be quite the opposite, actually.