If you didn’t know better, you might think that Peter Chiarelli likes to watch Oilers Twitter burn. Obviously, his decision to trade Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, and then to sign Kris Russell to a one-year deal were done with the intention of making the Oilers better, but in both cases the moves also set off arguments within the fan base which, even now, are far from settled. As a rule, Oilers fans don’t agree on anything, not the colour of sky, not the colour of grass, nothing. The Hall and Russell arguments felt different though. After ten years of failing to even be within shouting distance of a playoff spot the fans had had enough and these moves, at least in my opinion, seemed to tap into the frustration which was right below the surface.
I’m not interested in rehashing either these arguments again today. The Hall trade was exactly what the Oilers needed, or it was so lopsided that it will haunt the Oilers for years to come. Russell is a gritty player who does the little things that teams need but don’t show up in the numbers or he is a drag on his teammates and his perceived value comes from things that traditional hockey men overvalue. Both sides have dug in there is a little chance of moving anyone on either side. But, considering that we now know that the Oilers will be without the services of Andrej Sekera until December, and possibly not until February, I want to take a quick look at Russell to see if it makes any more sense now for the Oilers to re-sign him.
As I mentioned in the comments yesterday, a big part of my issue with re-signing Russell is that I just don’t see where he fits. Based on what’s been said publicly, I think it’s very reasonable to conclude that Chiarelli and the rest of the Oilers front office like Russell and would like to see him in an Oilers jersey next year. I don’t understand where he fits though. Presumably the front office also likes Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, Matt Benning, and Darnell Nurse, so if the Oilers are planning to contend for a Stanley Cup next season - and with Connor McDavid on an entry level contract they should be - how do you improve the blue line if you’re returning the same six defencemen?
The short answer that question is that you can’t improve the defence if you return the same six defencemen, at least not enough to move the dial on this team in any significant way. It is not unreasonable to expect Benning or Nurse, and even Larsson and Klefbom to some extent, to be better next season given that they’ll be a year old and gained some valuable experience this season, but the gap between where the team’s defence is and where it needs to be won’t be closed by those incremental improvements alone. If the Oilers are going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender next season – and they should be – then they need to improve their defence, and the most logical way to do that is to get Russell out of the top four.
Take Sekera out of the equation though, does that change things at all? The answer to this question is go to depend, in part at least, on how long you expect Sekera to be out of the lineup. A six-month recovery timeline would result in him missing about 20 games. If he can’t return to the lineup until our calendars read 2018, then you’re looking at over 40 games without him. And a full nine-month recovery would push his return past the
Olympic break All-Star game. On the shortest timeline, I don’t think the Oilers would need to worry about Sekera’s absence too much, a quarter of the season should be something that they can overcome, but it probably makes sense to plan for a scenario other than the absolute best case. Which, without Russell, would mean you now need to new defenceman.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Oilers replace Russell in the top four with a new right-handed defenceman. As I’ve outlined above, I think this was a logical piece to add before, and without Sekera available to anchor the second pair this is even more necessary now as Russell/Benning (or anyone else in the organization) is going to get buried. And when Sekera returns you’re back to the same six defencemen which we’ve already determined aren’t good enough anyway. The right side of the second pair is a hole that simply needs to be filled. With that addition taken care of (so to speak), the Oilers are left just needing to fill Sekera’s spot in the lineup for the duration of his injury.
Depending on who the Oilers find for that spot on the right side of the second pair – that’s a post for another time – I honestly don’t hate the idea of Russell on the left side of the second pair. Russell’s possession numbers this season were, to put it nicely, not great, but as a left-handed shot playing on the right side, those numbers likely don’t reflect his true skill level. For 20-40 games playing Russell on the left side of the second pair wouldn’t be an awful bet. There is a potential problem though when Sekera returns to the lineup and Russell, Benning, and Nurse are left trying to fit into two spots. Depth isn’t the worst problem to have though, and depending how players are developing elsewhere this could create trade options for the Oilers.
From the team’s perspective, there is something to like about this scenario. It sounds like Russell wants to be here so getting his name on a new contract is potentially an easy item to cross off the Oilers’ to do list, and doing so would provide the team with either trade options once Sekera returns to the line-up, or roster depth should someone else get injured. But it takes two to make a deal, so, while this might make sense for the Oilers, you have to ask if this is something that Russell would want as well. And despite his statements that he’d like to stay here, I’m not sure that he would.
Russell recently turned 30, so regardless of what you think of his game today it should be obvious that he doesn’t have too many years left in this league. If I were in his shoes I would want to get as much as I could on this deal, both dollars and term. If the Oilers are planning to use him as a replacement for Sekera they might be willing to offer a little more money on a one-year deal, but anything longer than a single year is almost a non-starter as the Oilers are going to be squeezed up against the cap when they have to start paying McDavid what he’s actually worth in the fall of 2018. When that happens, they won’t also be able to afford the luxury of paying a third pairing player second pairing money.
I think the Oilers would like to make a deal. I think Russell would like to make a deal. But I don’t see how the two can come together and make a deal works for both sides. And the injury to Sekera doesn’t change that a whole lot.