The WTE (What to expect) series is coming back to M&G this off-season where we examine players to try and predict what we can expect from them in the upcoming season. This time there be more players covered since it's starting much earlier than it did last year. We begin with defenseman Kris Russell who set a new record for blocked shots in a season and might have had a higher save percentage than some goalies.
Although blocking shots isn't something you want to be doing 283 times a season, it's still a skill that Russell can use to be a good player. The recent acquisition of Dougie Hamilton should lessen the load for Russell and may help improve his possession stats if he ends up playing fewer minutes. If nobody else in the top four gets traded, it's very likely that Russell will be bumped down to the third pair.
The Shot Blocking Dilemma
Let's get one thing straight: I absolutely loved the fact that Russell was constantly willing to throw his body in front of pucks. And let's face it, there's nothing wrong about that. However, at some point he needs to be able to turn those blocked shots into actual shots on goal. After all, that's the entire point of playing hockey. His teammate, Lance Bouma, is a great example of a player who is amazing at blocking shots and at the same time knows how to score goals and help out in other ways in the defensive zone.
This leads us to Russell's big problem throughout the season: his possession numbers. Considering that for the majority of the season he was paired up with Dennis Wideman, who had a great offensive season, you would think that Russell would be able to possess the puck for a considerable amount of time. Clearly this was not the case and when defensemen are unable to break out of the defensive zone it becomes difficult for teams to keep them on the second pairing. I do believe that Russell has the potential to be a good fourth defenseman if we find a reason to appreciate him other than the fact that he can block a shot.
Can he prove the doubters wrong?
Well, that question lies completely in Russell's hands. By that I mean if he will have the ability to improve his possession numbers over the course of the season and polish up his overall defensive game. Often times in the defensive zone, specifically around the net, Russell gets caught chasing the puck or being lost in the play. Things like this are detrimental to the team's success, especially when the opposing team puts on a lot of pressure late in a game.
As for his possession, there are many factors that can come into play here. One of the most obvious ones is who is defense partner is going to be. Will Russell be paired with something like Ladislav Smid or Deryk Engelland? What about Tyler Wotherspoon if both Smid and Engelland get traded? With all of the trades and moving that's been going on over the past couple of weeks, I wouldn't be surprised to see more in the future. We could possibly even see Jakub Nakladal get some time with him considering Nakladal's a righty and primarily a shutdown defenseman.
At this point in the year it's fairly difficult to project how well a guy like Kris Russell will do considering the uncertainties of the defensive lineup. There may be a trade later on in the off-season that could impact the defense, but for simplicity's sake let's just go with what we have.
2014-2015 Statistics: GP 79 G 4 A 30 P 34 +/- +18 PPG 1 PPA 13
Predicted 2015-2016 Statistics: GP 82 G 5 A 20 +/- +5 PPG 1 PPA 8
If the Flames' blue line does not change at all over the off-season, then Russell will see a drop in ice time and a drop in production as well. He won't be needed as much in powerplay situations, but when he does get the occasional chance on the powerplay Russell should do well considering the other four defensemen he could be paired with. That being said, Russell's overall production throughout the season will likely decline given the possible defensive partners he could have.
That's it for the first WTE of 2015, make sure to leave a comment and vote down below for which player you want to see next.