So, the Oilers have just resigned Kriss Russell for $16 million for 4 years. There's a modified no-trade clause in there as well. Predictably, there is some debate on whether the Oilers made the right move. Russell has been a polarizing figure for the Oilers faithful with many believing that he doesn’t merit the contract he’s been given.
While the Russell debate rages with both sides pulling out fancy stats to reinforce their points, the fact remains that the Oilers have used recently freed up cap space to sign a defenceman to help ameliorate the loss of Sekera to injury in the coming season. With Russell, the Oilers are hoping to fill one of the holes in their second defensive pairing. While this still leaves half of the pairing yet to be revealed, it’s a start which is more than they had before.
While Russell seemed to slump in point production during the middle of the season, he did see an upward swing with 10 points in his last 23 games to finish out the season. It’s not much but it was better than the five points in the first 48 games. Russell, supporters argue, wasn’t signed to put up points but to be a defensive defenceman. This may or may not be true as the Oilers will need to be able to rely on more than two defenceman or their power play won’t improve from the mediocre results of last year’s play offs. (Or McDavid can’t do everything. There’s only one of him.)
Russell allowed zone entries far too easily, even as he filled shooting lanes and defended the inner slot tenaciously, rarely giving up an uncontested shot. His on-ice stats at hockeyanalysis.com placed him seventh and last among the seven regular Oilers defencemen in shot attempts against per hour, but first in shots-on-goal against per hour.
Turns out barely 47% of those shot attempts actually made it through to the goalie, Russell himself blocking an inordinate number of them. The rest of the D-corps ranged from 49.4% (his partner Sekera) to 52% for the Swedish duo to 55% + for the third pairing guys. In Darnell Nurse’s case over 60% of the shot attempts on his watch got through to test the goalie.
Russell’s shot blocking has been extensively used as a justification for his defensive failings. It might be best summarized as “yes, he messed up, but he also fixed it.” The problem with that is, of course, if the Oilers want to make a deep Stanley Cup run a defenceman who doesn’t provide the opportunity in the first place would be preferable to many. Russell has been compared to defenceman like Smid, Nikitin, and Ference on the Oilers blueline which is bad news for Oilers fan who like him. None of those defenceman made a sustained positive impact on the Oilers blueline, and the hope is that Russell will be the first in a different mold.
Russell’s deal is comparable to Andrew Ference or Brayden Corburn's contracts. The Oilers will be hoping that his performance in the coming years makes it clear they made the correct choice in utilizing their recently created cap space to re-sign Kris Russell instead of trading for a different defenceman or trying the UFA market.