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The Logic Gap in Re-Signing Kris Russell

Russell takes a lot of grief in some circles, often well deserved, but the case against re-signing him is so straight forward we barely even need to talk about Russell himself.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

I don't post much here at Copper & Blue these days, so you know if I do, it's because I feel like I have something I need to say.

For those of you who follow me on twitter, you may have seen a thread of tweets on this subject last night, but I felt like I wanted to flesh out the details a bit, so here we are.

I know Kris Russell takes a lot of crap from the analytics community. This is not news to anyone. I also get that there is a significant segment of the mainstream hockey media who believe strongly in some of the things Russell provides. It's pretty clear where I stand on the issue and this post isn't about debating the value of the things Russell excels at versus the cost of the things he struggles with. I'm happy to debate that all day, but for now it will have to wait for another time and place.

Today I want to discuss the simplest reason that I think the Edmonton Oilers simply cannot look to re-sign Kris Russell, not to mention the travesty they would be bringing upon themselves by doing so in-season. The argument against both of these things boils down to one simple factor: logic. So, let's use some logic to demonstrate why I believe both of these are bad ideas.

Brandon Davidson

First let's tackle the easiest one. Signing Russell to an extension within the season. Bob Stauffer went to great lengths over the off-season to tout the value of Darnell Nurse as being even higher than it would normally be for the simple reason that he does not require protection in the expansion draft. Nurse's exemption allows the team to protect their four best blueliners in Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera and Brandon Davidson (this assumes they follow the 4-4-1 approach, which I think is the obvious choice for the Oilers barring any new acquisitions). Signing Russell at this point would logically imply that you would want to keep him around in Edmonton and that you're therefore more likely to protect him come expansion draft time. The likely cost of that signing then would be Brandon Davidson, who is the one who would need to be left unprotected and would almost certainly end up in Las Vegas.

From this standpoint, it is basically a choice being made of Davidson vs. Russell and since I consider Davidson to be far more valuable given a) his age, b) his contract and c) the fact that I consider him to be a better player both now and moving forward, I don't see why you would make a choice that almost explicitly costs you the asset of Brandon Davidson just to re-sign a player (any player really) in-season. Simple logic dictates that even if you want to keep the player, perhaps you discuss terms, but you don't put anything on paper until after you've protected a valuable player in Davidson.

Ok, so wait to sign him in June?

Not so much. This is where we get to the bigger issue which is the fact that they shouldn't be re-signing Russell at all. I made my case on twitter last night, but let's follow the logic a little more clearly here:

Alright, let's run through a series of questions and follow where logic takes us:

Question 1: Is the current top four group on the Oilers' blueline good enough to win a Stanley Cup?

If you're saying yes right now, I don't think we see the game in a very similar way. They lack any form of significant offensive weapon on the back-end, both at even strength and on the powerplay, and they still struggle to move the puck from the right side of the ice to a degree despite Pete Chiarelli's claims of Russell being among the best at completing passes that "enable controlled zone entries".

Small sidetrack...I'd argue someone who excels in that area would then see his teammates produce a higher volume of shot attempts since he's so consistently putting his forwards in good attack position, yet Russell ranks 229th out of 231 Dmen who have played in the NHL this season in terms of on-ice shot attempts produced for his team per 60 minutes 5v5 ice-time relative to his teammates (or CF60RelTM for those who are analytically inclined)...meaning his team gets the puck directed at the opposing net to a far lesser degree when he is on the ice than literally any other blueliner they have, which directly contradicts McLellan's statement and makes me wonder who they are getting their analytic data from...end sidetrack.

Ultimately, I don't think the statement Klefbom, Larsson, Sekera, Russell is not a Stanley Cup contending top four is all that controversial. That leads us to...

Question 2: Klefbom, Larsson and Sekera are all signed for at least four additional seasons beyond this one. The team sacrificed an elite talent in Taylor Hall to acquire Adam Larsson, so I don't think he's being moved anytime soon. Andrej Sekera has a full no-movement clause and Oscar Klefbom is the youngest, possibly the best and almost certainly signed to the best contract of those three players. Does it make sense for the Oilers to move any of these three players any time soon?

Again, I'm hoping many of you are shaking your heads. Those three players should be patrolling the Oiler blueline for a number of seasons to come, and that's a good thing. All are good, capable defenders and particularly on the left side, there is some decent puck moving ability. If you want my opinion, what the team lacks is a Justin Faulk/Tyson Barrie type player to complement the existing skill set of that trio, though obviously those players aren't easy to come by. That said, the inclusion of Russell does little more than, at best, reinforce existing areas of depth without tackling any of the group's weak spots. This brings us to...

Question 3: Will Kris Russell sign for term in Edmonton for a price point of $2M or less to play a third pairing role?

I find this highly unlikely. Part of the reason the Russell contract was palatable (though I still wasn't a fan) this fall was because it was a one year deal as a stop gap. My concern at the time was that they would re-sign him and compound the issue, which based on Pete Chiarelli's recent comments sounds almost likely. Given that Russell is being played in a top four role on the team currently, I suspect he would want to be paid as such (as he should based on his deployment) and signing for a $1 million+ pay cut per year doesn't feel like something he'd be excited about given his average TOI/game. I suspect if that were the offer he'd wait and see what the open market presents to him in the summer. Even $2M is expensive for another third pairing blueliner when you consider Edmonton still has Nurse, Davidson, Benning and Fayne already under contract for next season. If you're argument is "Russell is not a third pairing blueliner"...please go back to the previous two questions and tell me where we've gotten off track...I'll wait.........right...shall we move forward then?

Follow the Logic

So, if we accept, as I hope most can that:

  1. Edmonton's current top four isn't bringing them a Stanley Cup anytime soon
  2. Klefbom, Larsson and Sekera are going to be in Edmonton for a while
  3. Russell is unlikely to sign for a third pairing contract and role, and Edmonton is overloaded with 3rd pair guys already anyway.

...then we're left with the choice of:

a) Signing Russell and committing to a top 4 that isn't likely to take you to where you ultimately want to go or,
b) Letting Russell walk away despite the fact that he is a bonafide NHL player.

If someone sees a way that my logic is off, please let me know, but every way I look at the current Oilers blueline (eye-test, analytics, cap management, logic) all confirm for me that Edmonton is better off playing out the season with Russell and then letting him walk away in July or trying to deal him at the deadline for an asset should they fall out of post-season contention between now and then.

What are your thoughts Oiler fans? Should Chiarelli be locking up Russell?