At some point, somewhere, Kris Russell's body is going to breakdown. It's more than likely it's from blocking a shot, in the defensive zone attempting to save the day. Somehow he escaped that fate this year, missing only two games back in November due to a lower body injury. Because of that he hit career highs this year in games played during the regular season.
Used as a top-four pairing defenseman this season, Kris Russell became a fixture on the Flames' blueline, including a lengthy stint on the "top pairing" once captain Mark Giordano went down with injury. The team relied heavily upon him, like many, down the stretch to pick up the slack. His play rode the ebb and flow of what Calgary experienced as a whole, though there is significant question of whether or not he is made for such a big role.
His first goal of the season didn't come until February 4th, 50 games into his season. From there on, by adding three more in the regular season and two more in the Flames' postseason run, Russell became a secondary contributor of offense. His 34 points were a career high, with 58.8% of them coming at even strength.
The former world junior champion won fans over, but how did his play impress us? Let's take a look:
Kris Russell is a guy who had to play well above where he should be. Slated as a top four guy, Russell has actually historically only seen success while playing lesser minutes on the bottom pairing. I like him well enough, but too much pressure was put on him, leading to a lot of questionable decisions - both defensively (blocking shots) and offensively (Kris, why are you shooting directly into the opposing player’s shins?) - that would have gone over better had he been the team’s fifth or sixth defender.
To address the shot blocking directly, since that became Russell’s signature over the season: it’s not bad to block shots. However, that’s not an area you want to set an NHL record in, because it means you did something horribly, horribly wrong throughout the year. To be in your own zone so often you have to block that many shots is a bad sign. It’s better to block a shot than to not, but you know what’s even better? To take shots of your own. You can’t do that if you don’t have the puck. For a top four guy, Russell did not have the puck enough. He played in sheltered circumstances - even when he and Dennis Wideman were promoted to the top pairing - and was unable to reap the benefits. He’s an alright defenceman, but he shouldn’t be considered core.
Mike FAIL (C-):
I've spent a lot of time this year criticizing Kris Russell. It's not that I hate him, it's that I hate the way he is used because it's a detriment to the team. The skill-set that he has does have is not suited for that role, nor did it help the world of possession. He's best suited for a 5/6 role, in which I think he could flourish a bit more. At times it looks like he is trying too hard to live up to the role he is put into.
Beyond the inevitable issues I have with praise of setting a shot blocking record, it should be a clear indication that if you don't have the puck often then it needs to be considered a concern. He was often praised for jumping up into the play, which is great, though his puck handling skills lent themselves to turnovers and the play going back up the ice at times.
Too much stock is put into the eye-test to justify his play. At the end of the day, guys like Raphael Diaz and to an extent David Schlemko could have been used more and created a bigger, potentially more positive impact for the Flames, which may have allowed them to be more successful at having possession of the puck.
Russell was an individual who was stuck on a top four pairing. The only categories that he really excelled in were shot blocking and +/-. People will praise him based on these statistics, but some explanation of the data really needs to be performed.
With regards to Russell’s shot blocking, he simply blocks far too many shots. Without going into too much detail, Russell’s shot blocking numbers aren’t a good thing and they’re only made worse when looking at his zone start percentage. He essentially blocked over two times more shots than he should have given his starts in the offensive zone. That means that when he was on the ice the puck was moving backwards into his own zone more often than not.
With regards to his +/- he was essentially the luckiest player in the league. A multivariable regression analysis was performed on various statistics for defenseman including goals, assists, and possession numbers. No individual was luckier than Russell when comparing his expected goal differential to his actual differential. His expected differential was outside of the top 180 defensemen. This was driven in large part by playing with Dennis Wideman, who produced a ton of points at even strength. Russell himself was 147th in the league on a per minute basis while Wideman was 24th.
It’s worth noting that Russell was good on both the power play and penalty kill and he may have some value there. The problem is that his numbers are so poor at even strength that he’s below an average replacement player at even strength and thus he doesn’t really deserve a bonus for his special teams play. Many talk about how Dennis Wideman’s numbers are not repeatable, but Wideman doesn’t have the most to lose out of all of this - Russell does, as without Wideman’s production, he’s essentially a slightly better version of Andrew MacDonald.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know all about Kris Russell setting a new shot-blocking record in the NHL this season with 283. That’s a lot of pucks. Yet another player lauded for his intangibles, in his case, heart. But he could be so much more than that. If he didn’t focus so much on blocking every shot, and instead played defence and tried to suppress those shots, it’s possible he could be a much better defenceman.
He doesn’t make the same defensive blunders his partner does, and his defensive play actually allows Wideman to step up into plays and focus on offence. He even scored some key goals this season. I would keep Russell over Wideman and Engelland any day. He’s not elite, but he has the ability to be a solid second pairing guy.
Kris Russell’s main praise comes from all the shots he blocked this season, but I suggest that he could be an even better player without blocking a single shot. He does show enough defensive awareness to be in the right spot at the right time, and can move the puck very well with Wideman when they choose to move the puck. The only thing holding that pairing back is their propensity to block the puck instead of trying to force a turnover.
My love for Russell is well known. He’s not the best, but that doesn’t stop him giving everything for the cause. Plus, he scored some pretty crucial goals this year. Give me Russell over Engelland any day.
Analytically speaking, the numbers do not look good for Kris Russell. For one, he’s a poor possession player despite relatively high offensive zone starts. Two, the fact that he broke the record for most blocked shots in a season means he spent a large majority of his time playing in the defensive zone, allowing opponents to shoot the puck (at him). And yet… I like him.
He played big minutes following Giordano’s injury, putting up 14 points in the last 20 games of the regular season. This production carried over into the playoffs with 7 points in 11 games. Russell’s defensive play could no doubt be better, but as a player who stepped up and gave it his all down the stretch, he’s not a bad depth defenseman.
We all had varying degrees of fondness for the rodeo defender, though there are consistent underlying themes in all of our answers. I feel like there is still some potential in his game that could improve, but it could be all systemic usage. For now at least, we've given him a C average for his play.
Moving forward, this coming season is the final year of his $2.6M contract. At only 28, if there is a chance of his game rounding out where we see him find some way of improving his possession, he can continue to be a fixture on the blueline. Though it does go without question that Kris Russell does embody a lot of the core messages and mantras of this Calgary Flames team who shocked everyone by their play this season.