Has there been a more polarizing Calgary Flames figure over the last couple of seasons than Kris Russell? The pending free agent defenceman has ardent supporters who rave about his fearlessness and character. He also has realistic detractors who point out his defensive liabilities and dependance on shot blocking in response. I’m not sure where the Flames land on this conversation, but I do know what their approach should be with Russell prior to the deadline.
Our profile on Russell is the final in our risk and reward pieces prior to the deadline. We’ve done three so far:
- Karri Ramo – February 8th
- David Jones – February 16th
- Jiri Hudler – February 20th
- Kris Russell – Today
The trade deadline is less than a week away, so let’s break it down with Russell.
Risk: Regardless of where you fall on the Russell debate, no one can deny he plays a lot of minutes. Averaging around 23 minutes per game, only TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano play more than Russell does on any given night. A trade for Russell likely won’t bring back anyone who can play right away, so you’re taking a lot of minutes out of Calgary’s lineup. Can those minutes be filled by other players (cough, Dougie Hamilton)? Yeah, I think they can, but until we see it, you never know.
Trading Russell also removes an important voice in that locker room. Yes, I know, leadership and character arguments aren’t the most popular on this site, but this one isn’t irrelevant. Russell is one of the true leaders in that room and from a personality standpoint, he’s a guy I’d take on my team every day of the week.
With that said, making decisions based largely on “intangibles” is not a sound way of running a hockey team. As cold as it sounds, there are other solid character guys in the NHL who are more effective players than Russell. So while removing him from the group will be felt off the ice, his impact in that regard is not irreplaceable. It does still belong in the risk category, though.
Reward: The Flames have a really good opportunity to capitalize on something right now. Russell is a player who will be coveted at the deadline for a couple different reasons. First and foremost, there aren’t a lot of defencemen rumoured to be available. Regardless of how effective you believe Russell is as a player, he does have the ability to step into any lineup right now and play 20 minutes per night. Because there’s not a lot of guys like that out there this year, he’s going to be sought after.
For me, Russell’s best fit would be on a team lacking a little bit of defensive depth. I look at teams like Colorado and Dallas, for instance. One squad is a playoff hopeful while the other is fighting for a division title, but they both leave a little to be desired on the back end. Nashville, Minnesota, and Washington are also interesting and realistic fits. I’m sure you could come up with other good landing spots, which illustrates my point: teams will be interested in him and that could, and hopefully will, drive his price up.
Second, and just as important, is Russell’s reputation around the league. There are certain GM’s who value a lot of the qualities he brings to a hockey team. Russell blocks a lot of shots, he sells out, and genuinely does leave everything on the ice. Some GM’s look at that and are willing to overlook other shortcomings in a player’s game. If you’re Calgary, you have a real chance to leverage that.
Knowing all of that, the Flames have a real opportunity to cash in on a trade involving Russell. For just a second, think of some of the trades made involving blueliners at last year’s deadline. Anaheim turned Ben Lovejoy into Simon Despres; the Kings gave up a conditional first round pick for Andrej Sekera; Jeff Petry netted the Oilers two picks including a second rounder; Tampa paid through the nose for Braydon Coburn in the form of a player and two picks, including a first.
I’m not sure where you slot Russell in among those other defenders, but am I off base suggesting Calgary could get a pair of picks in return? If there is enough interest, the Flames could drive that asking price up even higher. It’s an opportunity that is going to be tough to pass up.
Risk: If the Flames are able to retain Russell for next season, they’re very likely going to have to give him a raise. That worries me, because for what Russell is, I don’t think Calgary is in the position to give him that raise. There have been numerous articles written, both on this site and abroad, detailing the reality of what Russell is.
For me he’s an over-utilized defenceman who spends far too much time in his own end. He’s definitely an NHL caliber defenceman, but he’s not suited to be a regular in a contending team’s top four. The numbers below will give you a pretty good indication of that. Up until February 17th of this season, I’ve compiled Russell’s possession and zone start data in all 5-on-5 situations and in close situations.
The team rank is compared to every blueliner who has played more than 15 games with Calgary since the start of the 2013-2014 season which totals 11 players. In that time, only Chris Butler, Ladislav Smid, and Deryk Engelland have worse raw possession rates; all three of them have lower offensive zone start ratios. Even more telling is in close situations where only Butler and Shane O’Brien have worse possession numbers. In this case, Butler had fewer offensive starts than Russell while O’Brien had more.
So what does this tell you? It says that Russell has spent among the most time in his own end despite fairly favourable utilization. In seeing that, his gaudy shot block totals don’t seem all that surprising anymore. Numbers like these are fine for someone playing on a third pairing, but to sign Russell to a deal that would see him remain in the top four doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Reward: Right now, I don’t mind Russell’s contract at all. Carrying a cap hit of $2.6 million, Russell has given the team decent value even if he’s been forced to play over his head for much of his time here. If there’s a way for that trend to continue, I think there’s a decent conversation worth having about keeping Russell in the fold.
For sake of argument, would it be that bad to see Russell come back on a three year extension at or around his current cap hit? It seems fairly reasonable knowing where things are going. The contracts of both Engelland and Dennis Wideman will be expiring at the end of next season, which would align nicely with Russell moving into a depth role as the number five or six guy. If the team is able to bring in another top four guy over the next two years, I could live with a few years of Russell on the third pairing for under $3 million a season.
The chances of that happening seem slim, though. The contracts signed by Sekera and Petry with Edmonton and Montreal, respectively, are being used as comparables for what Russell might be able to get on the open market. If he has a shot at $5 million annually for a decent term, why would he sign for less money and term with the Flames?
I really do like Russell for what he is. The problem is, he’s probably going to be asking for a whole lot more than what his type of player should ideally be paid. With where their cap is going, the Flames just don’t have the option to overpay for a third pairing defenceman regardless of what he brings off the ice. Calgary has the opportunity to get a good return prior to the deadline for a guy they traded a fifth round pick for. That’s good asset management and that has to be the priority.