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With each passing day through this rain-soaked summer here in Edmonton, we inch closer and closer to the start of a new Oilers season, distancing ourselves from the train-wreck that was the 2018-19 campaign. But we can still glean some info from the awful 2018-19 season that can give us an idea about how some players might perform this upcoming season, and how the team as a whole will do.

So barring an off-season trade, which with each passing day is seeming less and less likely, we can expect to see this man patrolling the blue-line in the Oilers Top 4: Kris Russell.

GP G A P +/- Blocks Blocks/GM Hits Hits/GM TOI/GM
72 3 13 16 5 185 2.6 93 1.3 20:26

Other than Milan Lucic, Russell might be the next most polarizing player on the roster, some (many?) believing that his $4.5 cap hit is an over-payment for a one-trick player who doesn’t belong in the top 4. The biggest reason for this opinion on Russell is, without a doubt, because he’s most often associated with shot-blocking, something that many view as overrated. He’s a very good skater, and does possess decent puck-moving skills, but his most revered (or despised?) attribute is his shot-blocking, something he’s been proficient at over the past six seasons.

How proficient you ask? Well, let’s take a look:

Season Blocks GP PTS
2013-14 (CGY) 201 (3rd overall) 68 29
2014-15 (CGY) 283 (1st overall) 79 34
2015-16 (CGY/DAL) 210 (2nd overall) 62 19
2016-17 (EDM) 213 (1st overall) 68 13
2017-18 (EDM) 223 (1st overall) 78 21
2018-19 (EDM) 185 (3rd) 72 16

Since the 2013-14 season through this past one, Russell leads the league with a total amount of blocks at 1315. Why is that impressive/idiotic? The player at second, Dan Girardi, has 982. A quick Mad Minute tells us that Russell has 333 more blocks than the next closest player over six seasons.

The knock on Russell’s best attribute is that many believe that it’s an out-dated, overrated stat. FWIW, other players that appear on that top ten list over the past six seasons include John Carlson (930, fifth overall), Roman Josi (927, sixth overall), Alex Pietrangelo (922, seventh overall), Alex Goligoski (921, ninth overall), and last season’s Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano (913, tenth overall). So it can perhaps be an overrated stat, but it certainly isn’t useless.

Now clearly, the main difference with Russell and these other players is that they are offensive catalysts, and Russell is often branded as an offensive blackhole. Let’s see if the advanced numbers prove that.

(All counts at Even Strength)

ES TOI: 1313:52

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Starts
45.13 50.91 46.89 218/249 46.68 31/33 48.44 9.64 .919 1.016 43.45

Not great, but not as deep in the tank as some might think (certainly not as deep as it would seem with the way Russell’s slandered by the fan base). The goal percentage is actually shockingly high, with a very average on-ice shooting percentage. The goalie numbers are decent too, resulting in a PDO that is right where you want it to be and quite sustainable.

But those counts only tell part of the story, so let’s look at how Russell performed relative to the rest of the team:

CF%Rel SCF%Rel GF%Rel HDCF%Rel HDGF%Rel
-5.01 -2.45 5.19 -2.71 1.65

What some might expect: in the red as far as possession counts go, with chances directed more often towards the Oilers’ net rather than their opponents’. But that number is skewed from the high rate of shots that Russell blocks as opposed to him taking them away. That might explain why the goal scoring is a positive rate despite more Corsi chances against: Russell style still stops goals against and moves them up the ice. With a minimum of 500 minutes played, Russell had the fifth highest on-ice save percentage on the team.

But as always, particularly with defensemen, the relative numbers can only tell so much of the story. So let’s look at how Russell performed with his most frequent defensive partners.

(Again, all counts at Even Strength)

w/ Darnell Nurse

ES TOI Together: 1079:52

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Starts
45.37 50.60 46.59 175/212 45.22 25/27 48.08 8.94 .925 1.015 28.62

With that amount of time together, Nurse and Russell were pretty much one player on the blueline. The most intriguing count that stands out is the goalie save percentage: incredibly high for a pairing that plays so often together, and started almost always in the defensive zone, making it more the rule than the exception. Goals were on the right side of the line too, which is also impressive for such a frequent pairing despite a slightly low on-ice shooting percentage.

(FWIW, despite the common belief that Nurse is cursed with playing with Russell and is held back because it, both players’ numbers are actually worse away from one another).

w/ Oscar Klefbom

ES TOI Together: 61:58

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Starts%
42.34 83.33 59.57 13/8 61.90 4/0 100.00 15.15 .970 1.121 15.38

An incredible drop-off from Nurse, Klefbom is the only other d-man that Russell played more than an hour next to. That being said, with these two on the ice possession wasn’t ideal, but goals were scored, and the goalies did not suffer behind them despite barely ever starting in the offensive zone.

w/ Kevin Gravel

ES TOI Together: 48:30

CF% GF% SCF% HDCF/CA HDCF% HDGF/GA HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off.Zone Start%
50.98 80.00 48.89 9/6 60.00 1/1 50.00 14.29 .952 1.095 43.90

Interesting that Russell’s third most frequent partner is someone who likely won’t be on the team next year, but it’s worth looking at because here we see more of the same: goals were scored (though a very high on-ice shooting percentage) and the goalies looked good behind them. Curiously, this was the first partner that saw the Corsi percentage match the goal output. Not enough time to block all those shots, I suppose…

w/ Anyone Else…

Adam Larsson: 26:15

Matthew Benning: 22:57

Andrej Sekera: 22:10

Evan Bouchard: 16:31

Jason Garrison: 16:19

It’s somewhat fascinating to see the disproportionate amount of time that Russell played with Nurse and nearly nobody else. Clearly both McLellan and Hitchcock trusted the Russell-Nurse pairing through thick and thin.

Final Thought

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both head coaches last season stuck with the Russell-Nurse throughout the year. As I said above, there seems to be a common opinion that Russell has been a lead weight around Darnell’s neck, but is it possible that they actually like playing with one another? I’m thinking that 1079+ minutes together might suggest that might be the case.

Personally, I think Russell gets a bad rap. True, he’s on the wrong side of thirty, and with his style of play the decline will likely show sooner rather than later (if not already), and with the buy-out of Andrej Sekera, Russell remains as as the only player with a No-Trade Clause on the team.

It’s hard to justify keeping a player who many think should be a bottom-pairing, whose making $4mil on a team that’s capped out, who doesn’t contribute enough offensively and only blocks shots. But despite the perceived out-dated style of play, for a team whose goaltending was called into question throughout the season, the goalies constantly had solid numbers while Russell was on the ice, regardless on who he was paired with. Goals were also scored more often than they were against with Russell on the ice, which is contrary the perception of many Oilers’ fans that Russell is a hindrance.

Russell’s name has come up regularly in off-season trade rumours, and it’s understandable considering his cap hit and the Oilers’ current cap situation. But, I do think that he still has value with this roster, and if he does get dealt, I hope it’s more than just for the sake of dumping his contract and having the cap space just because. If the point is to make the playoffs in 2020, doing that will not help accomplish that goal.

Kris Russell will.

Traditional stats courtesy of nhl.com                                                                                                                   Advanced counts courtesy of naturalstattrick.com                                                                                                   Salary Cap information courtesy of puckpedia.com


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