Kris Russell has played a lot of hockey for the Calgary the last few years. The Flames’ alternate captain was a top-2 defender for the team last year after Mark Giordano went down with injury. This year, he’s third in average even strength ice time on the team behind only Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. He’s one of the team’s alternate captains, a favourite of Bob Hartley’s and one of the best shot blockers in the league.
The problem with all that is, Russell struggles to suppress shots against, which is one of the primary roles of a defender. By struggles, I mean he’s been one of the worst players in the entire league since coming to Calgary. What’s strange is, he wasn’t that bad until he arrived in town.
So what changed?
Russell was a third round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets back in 2005. Two seasons after being drafted, he scored 32 goals and and 69 points from the blueline for the Medicine Hat Tigers. That was the highest total on the team, more than Darren Helm (64), Derek Dorsett (64) and David Schlemko (58).
Offense was supposed to be the undersized rearguard’s ticket to the NHL, so after his explosive 19-year old season the Blue Jackets promoted him straight to the show as a 20-year old rookie in 2007. Russell played a sheltered, third pairing role and managed a respectable two goals and 10 points in 67 games. His average ice time that year was just over 11 minutes at even strength, plus another 3 or so minutes on the PP.
That was Kris Russell’s role during his entire tenure in Columbus. His ice time marginally increased over his rookie season, but not really enough to move him up the depth chart. From 2007 until his departure in 2012, Russell averaged between 12 and 15 minutes of even strength ice time per night, which was typically 6th or worse in terms of average ice amongst defenders on the team. His role was “depth guy who played on the PP sometimes”. He was kept away the other team’s big guns. It’s how he started his career in the league and how his tenure ended in Columbus.
Things didn’t change much in St. Louis, his second stop. There he averaged about 15 minutes per night and again was kept away from other team’s top lines. Russell was a capable option in his support role, but those kinds of players are often considered expendable by decision makers (just ask David Schlemko and Raphael Diaz). It’s why he was available for a 5th round pick when the Flames came calling in 2013.
Russell’s offense never really developed at the NHL level, despite his output as a junior. His career high prior to coming to Calgary was just 23 points, which he managed in 2010-11. That’s mainly because a defenseman’s scoring in the NHL is highly dependent on getting lots of ice time – particularly with a team’s top forwards. None of Russell’s coaches in the show trusted him enough to give him that bump. Until he met Bob Hartley.
Russell is a player the modern NHL should favour. He has speed and agility. He has pedigree as an effective scorer and puck mover.
Maybe that’s why he moved up into the Flames top-4 rotation. Maybe it was just a lack of other options for the coaching staff. Whatever the reason, Russell has become a favourite of the Flames’ bench boss the last few years, despite the fact that he has been completely snowed under by the increase in responsibility.
Here’s Russell’s history as an NHLer, captured as a function of his deployment (ratio of offensive zone face-offs) and quality of competition (average ice time of the opposition). The higher up and further left on the chart, the more difficult the circumstances. The colour of the circle represents Russell’s relative possession each season. Blue = positive, red = negative. The size of the circle represents average ice time. (via War on Ice):
As you can see, Russell’s time in Calgary completely stands out from the rest of his NHL career. He’s playing a lot more in tougher circumstances and he’s getting hopelessly outshot. In Russell’s rookie season he had a relative corsi of +6.1% as a hyper sheltered depth option. As he has worked his way up the rotation, his outshooting rate has gradually eroded. This year, he’s at -5.9%, a near total inversion of his rate as a 20-year old.
To put it in plainer numbers, in 2007-08 Columbus gave up 42.8/60 shot attempts against with Russell on the ice at even strength. This year, the Flames give up 61.6 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of ice with Russell skating. In fact, during his three seasons in Calgary, the Flames have never given up less than 60 shot attempts against with Russell on the ice. To put that number in context, the only team giving up 60+ corsi events per game this year is the Colorado Avalanche (61.4/60).
The two things that seemed to have cemented Russell in Hartley’s head as a big minutes option is his penchant for blocking shots and his career year last season in parallel with the team’s Cinderella run.
All those things happening in tandem – Russell becoming the league’s shot blocking king, his results exploding in an expanded role and the club defeating all expectations – seem to be a compelling reason to trust him as a top-4 defender.
The problem is it’s all an illusion. One of the reasons Kris Russell blocks so many shots is a lot of shots are directed at his net when he’s on the ice. Spending time with Dennis Wideman and the uncanny Monahan unit last year while they were riding a wave of sky high shooting percentages papered over his significant defensive shortcomings at the time. Without that SH% boost, Russell is always going to get outshot (and outscored) heavily. At least as long as he’s a top-4 defender.
Kris Russell is probably still a legit NHL defender. I just think he’s best suited to the role he had in St. Louis and Columbus – as a third pairing, 2nd PP unit support guy.
To some degree, I also wonder if coaching is a source of his struggles in Calgary. The fact that he’s developed a tendency to jump in front of shots (and has been subsequently rewarded with more ice and responsibility in response) suggests he’s being directed and incentivized to do things that lead to lots of shot blocks. Getting in front of pucks still holds a relatively venerated place in the hearts and minds of decision makers in the league currently, but I come from the school of thought that says denying shot attempts altogether – and spending more time in the offensive zone – is far more valuable.
Whatever the cause – be it deployment, circumstances, coaching, strategy – Russell is mostly a liability on the ice in Calgary. Given his defensive struggles, he’ll also be far too expensive to re-sign come the offseason because of his improved reputation around the league (otherwise I would suggest retaining him with the caveat that he be designated a third pairing guy moving forward).
The best outcome for Calgary now would be to put Russell on the auction block around the trade deadline to try and leverage him for some sort of return. If they do better than a 5th rounder, then at least they will have come out ahead after three years.