Could Kris Russell work in Calgary?

It’s one of the worst kept secrets in the NHL: Kris Russell would like to return to the Calgary Flames and the team has interest in bringing him back. 

While I can confirm the prior statement is true, it’s a lot more difficult to determine the extent of interest from either side. One of the most polarizing players around these parts in recent years, Russell could be a nice addition to the Flames but only under the right circumstances. So just how would a potential Russell return work for Calgary?

Remember, interest only takes you so far in the hockey business. Are the Flames interested in Russell enough to make the moves necessary to fit him in? Are they willing to meet his contract demands? Then there’s the other side of this. Is Russell’s interest in returning to Calgary enough for him to come here at a significant discount? Would he take a PTO?

I don’t know the answers to those questions at this point. However, if interest exists then it’s at least worth a conversation as to how this could possibly work. Even those most staunchly against Russell returning can admit the circumstances outlined below make the concept feasible. So how could it work? I’ve broken it down into two categories.

On the books

The first hurdle the Flames would need to clear to add Russell, or anyone for that matter, would be their tenuous cap situation. For something like this to happen, three things would have to happen. Before we go there, though, let’s take a look at Calgary’s cap math as provided by General Fanager.

Screen Shot 2016-09-28 at 12.47.27 AM

With a good chunk of that available cap space (hopefully) going to Johnny Gaudreau’s contract, the Flames aren’t going to have a lot of breathing room when the season starts. Even if the team gets cap credit by putting Ladislav Smid on LTIR, they’re going to be right up against the ceiling on their opening day roster. So what three steps need to be taken to make a Russell deal make sense?

First, Calgary needs to sign Gaudreau. If the Flames are going to add another body at this point, they need to know exactly what their framework is going to look like. Because Gaudreau’s deal is going to be such a big part of that framework, the team needs to know what that’s going to look like before trying to fit anything else in. Freddie Hamilton’s $612,500 cap hit is one thing; Russell into the millions is something completely different.

Step two involves moving a contract. Calgary already has almost $30 million invested in their blueline and has two bottom pairing players (Engelland and Wideman) making more than $2.9 million. Even if the team opts to go the LTIR route with Smid, and even if a Russell deal came in at a reasonable price, the Flames would still have more than they’d like sunk into their back end.

Speaking of what a Russell cap number would look like, that leads us to our final step. Plain and simple, signing Russell (or anyone at this stage) needs to give the team flexibility. In short, that means the cap number has to be low and the term has to be short. 

If the reports of Russell talking about somewhere between $4 and $5 million annually are true, then it has to be a no go for Calgary. Even if they had more room under the cap and even if they had less invested on defence, a deal like that for the type of player Russell is doesn’t make sense. Russell carried a cap of hit of $2.6 million last season; that needs to be the high end of the ballpark on a one-year deal for this to make sense.

On the ice

For something like this to work, conditions would have to be met on the ice, too. If a reasonable deal is in the cards and the outlined bookkeeping steps are undertaken, then yes, Russell could help this team out. The Flames would have to use him differently than he was used prior to March’s trade with Dallas, though.

During the last two seasons under Bob Hartley, Russell was essentially used as the team’s number three defender. The problem was, especially last season, he was not the third best defenceman on the team. Despite not being suited for regular top four minutes, Russell was shoehorned into that role and struggled as a result.

Many are familiar with his poor possession metrics, but below is just a quick refresher over his three years in Calgary.

Screen Shot 2016-09-28 at 1.30.19 AM

For point of reference, the “rank” column is his rank from the bottom during that season. For instance, Russell’s possession rate in 62 games with the team last season was the second worst on the team. It’s also important to note for context Russell’s zone starts weren’t dramatically skewed defensively, either. The proof is there; the Flames were routinely outshot when Russell was on the ice.

Knowing all that though, I still wonder how Russell might fare if used properly. Even with his flaws, Russell is still a gifted skater, has decent offensive ability, and can defend well enough. His issues stem from subpar gaps between the bluelines which allow opposing players to gain the offensive zone on him too easily. Inside either stripe, though, he gets the job done at a decent rate.

While we sometimes cast dirty looks at the relevance of shot blocking, we also can’t deny the skill involved doing it. Russell is one of the NHL’s best at it and that has value. Russell can be effective on the offensive side of things, too. He’s a nice puck mover, his mobility allows him to keep plays alive at the offensive blueline, and he walks the line nicely on the powerplay.

Making a long story short, a properly utilized Russell could be a nice add for the Flames. Slotted behind Giordano, Brodie, Hamilton, and Jokipakka, and playing on the second powerplay unit, I think Russell would fit well. Playing above his head in the top four and averaging 23 minutes, on the other hand, doesn’t make much sense at all. 

Conclusion

I don’t know how to handicap the potential of Russell signing back with the Flames, I really don’t. I know there is mutual interest and I know the longer he remains without a deal, the more likely he’ll be to soften his contract asks. Because the possibility is there, though, I think the Russell discussion is a relevant one to have, especially because there are ways it could work positively for Calgary.

The Flames have a relatively deep blueline and thus are in a good position to play to Russell’s strengths. Give him lots of offensive zone starts against third and fourth line competition and he’s likely going to thrive. As for a contract, well, it has to make sense. One year at around $2 million sounds reasonable, but is it realistic? I guess we sit and wait.

  • jakethesnail

    Interesting retweet by our man Johnny!

    Johnny Gaudreau Retweeted
    postnikoff-m ‏@tjp_map Sep 25

    Counting down until Flames games start and we get to watch this guy play again!! #goflamesgo #13 #Gaudreau #thanksforalwayssigningourstuff
    Johnny Gaudreau

    • beloch

      This.

      Calgary’s prospect pool is crazy deep on the left side. Wotherspoon, Kulak, Kulkin, Kylington… The Flames are going to be hard-pressed to give these kids adequate development minutes as is.

      The right side is another story. Hamilton, Engelland, and Wideman is it for defenders with NHL experience, and you’d like to see at least one of those guys sitting in the press-box most nights. Rasmus Andersson, Kenney Morrison, and Adam Fox is the entire list of RD prospects.

      Put simply, if Gulutzan is serious about playing defenders on their natural sides, the Flames need a right shooting D like Nakladal a lot more than they need yet another left shooting guy like Russel.

      • everton fc

        Isn’t Nakladal building a home here for his parents?

        Anyway… Nakladal’s a better option than Russell. And he’s a right-handed shot. No-brainer.

        I think Kulak is ready. What happens to “Spoon”?

    • supra steve

      I agree that he is an asset worth keeping…but they do have Wotherspoon and Kulak both pushing for a spot and six established NHLers.

      My belief is that they have a handshake agreement in place with Nak, but if they don’t, they will be just fine if he walks.

      Again, I would rather keep him, but there’s really not a lot of space for all these emerging D-men this season…unless/until someone goes down with a season ending injury. Next year is going to be a different story.

        • OKG

          Is Nakladal better? Obviously his possession metrics (in a more sheltered role with better QoT) were better, but I don’t think Nakladal could give you 30 points from the third pair like Wideman could, or kill penalties like Engelland can.

          • DestroDertell

            Actually, whether Wideman can score 30 points in a 3rd pairing role at this point is a question mark.

            And Engelland is a really bad PKer. Terrible at covering forwards in front of the net, which is why he has the 3rd worst 4v5 GA60 amongs defensemen (150+ mins) since he joined the flames.

          • We don’t know what Nakladal is capable of on the PK because he received no time to showcase himself. For all we know there is a potential there for whomever signs him to find additional value.

            I think it’s hard to believe Wideman can hit 30 points at this rate if he’s getting extremely limited even strength minutes and PP2 unit minutes.

            Engelland isn’t exactly a worldbreaker on the PK, and what limited micro-stats tracking I did yielded nothing significant results wise. His PK usage seemingly only appears in a “third unit”/someone is injured/suspended/traded scenario.

          • freethe flames

            While there may be no evidence of Nak being better there is little doubt in my mind that he is a better defender than Wideman and better offensively that Eng’s. I would take him in a heartbeat over either of them as my third pairing RHD and I would take him over Russell as well.

        • supra steve

          So do you send them both to the A, or do you trade them with sweetener just to get rid of their contracts? I think the trade them option has been looked at extensively already. Would be pretty ballsy to send one or both down, but it could happen I guess.

  • Greatsave

    I’ve seen rumours in Twitterverse saying Flames, Oilers, and Habs are supposedly among 6 teams interested in Russell. Senators just lost out on Seidenberg so maybe they’re another team in on him?

    Forgot to mention that Kyle Quincey also only got a 1-year, $1.25m deal.

  • al rain

    Russell back as a Flame?

    You mean IF the season was a playoff write off (Gaudreau holds out…), and we traded Wideman (no salary retained) and then signed Russell at 1yr/$1m for him to be traded at the deadline for another player better than him plus an interesting prospect and a conditional first round pick?

    In that hypothetical situation I would be in favour of this move.

  • Just.Visiting

    I have no strong feelings one way or the other about Kris the player. I’ve always thought he played hard He seemed like a great team guy with some offensive skill who I thought was relied on too much by Bob. And I know that the analytics folks dislike him immensely.

    Do I see him as being part of the long term plans for the team as we shape it into a contender? No-quite possibly trade bait again at the deadline-probably for a much less favourable return.

    Are there other cheaper options at hand who might blossom into long term contributors on the team we wish to build? Yes.

    I have no sympathy whatsoever for the Flames’ supposed cap woes if they choose to perpetuate their problem by bringing Kris back on a 1-2 year deal.

    And I feel sorry for the younger players if they continue to see depth level veterans being brought in to fill roster spots for which organizational assets should have a reasonable expectation of a fair opportunity to compete.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    If Kulak and Spoon are NHL ready and the two young Swedes are hot on their heels and the logjam known as Wideman and Engelland remains, it would seem idiotic to sign Russell even at a bargain price for a year considering the cap crunch and the need to start filling the roster with home-grown talent. However, if one of the top 3 goes down early with a long-term injury, Russell as a Flame looks a lot more attractive.