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.
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.
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.
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.