Kris Russell was believed to be one of the top free agent blue liners available this summer and was expected to land a lucrative multi-year contract as a result. After all, Russell was just 29, an age still young enough to reasonably expect that a long-term deal would include multiple campaigns of steady production before an inevitable age-related decline set in. Additionally, the former Flame had posted a 34-point campaign as recently as 2014-15, suggesting Russell would be able to contribute some offense from either a team’s second or third pairing. However Russell remained available deep into the offseason before inking a one-year, $3.1MM pact with Edmonton, which made him just the fifth highest-paid defender on the Oilers.
Much of the reason for Russell’s stagnant summer market is due to the wide chasm in the analytics community regarding the defenseman’s actual value, as the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples opines. Staples writes that analysts who favor possession-based metrics have never thought highly of Russell’s work while others who rely more on tracking “the individual actions of players in game, such as zone entries, crucial good and bad defensive and offensive plays, and shots and passes that lead to scoring chances,” like Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli for example, rate Russell more favorably.
Essentially, the former sees Russell as nothing more than a competent third-pair defenseman, one who excels at blocking shots and plays a physical game and should be compensated as such. The latter would be comfortable putting Russell out on their second-pair and paying him accordingly. Edmonton clearly saw Russell as a top-four option and has awarded him with ice time commensurate of such. Currently, he is averaging nearly 21 1/2 minutes per game, two minutes more than his career average.
What remains to be seen, however, is how much effort, if any, the Oilers put into extending Russell prior to July 1st when he becomes a UFA again. The team is projected to have more than $19MM in cap space available and only Leon Draisaitl stands out as a pending free agent that will warrant a hefty outlay. But Edmonton is just one summer away from Connor McDavid becoming a restricted free agent and may wish to keep as much cap space available to get what is likely going to be an expensive long-term deal done with their franchise player. That could limit their interest in a reunion with Russell to a one-year term and the veteran defenseman may not be amenable to another short-term pact.
Elsewhere in the Pacific Division:
- Staying with Edmonton, it was one year ago nearly to the day that Chiarelli swung a deal with Montreal to acquire physical forward Zack Kassian. Kassian had just completed a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and while the trade was certainly a risk for Edmonton, 12 months later the gamble is paying off for both the team and the player, as Terry Jones of the Edmonton Journal writes. While Kassian is not lighting up the score sheet with just two goals and nine points in 33 games this season, Chiarelli says the power forward is playing well: “He’s kept clean. He’s in terrific shape. He’s settled down. And at some point he’ll start scoring. He’s playing well. He’s skating. He’s providing the physical element.” Kassian was originally selected the 13th overall by Buffalo in the first-round of the 2009 draft but was dealt to Vancouver during his rookie campaign for Cody Hodgson. His best season came in 2013-14 when the 6-foot-3, 217-pound forward tallied 14 goals and 29 points with 124 penalty minutes in 73 games for the Canucks. It’s certainly possible Kassian can match or even better those numbers playing on a skilled Oilers team headlined by McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
- Perhaps a bit of good news for San Jose as young winger Tomas Hertl was spotted this morning skating for the first time since undergoing knee surgery. Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area tweeted a photo of Hertl on the ice, apparently by himself. He’s still expected to be out for a while but this at least suggests his recovery is moving along relatively well. Hertl appeared in 17 games for the Sharks before the injury and registered four goals and nine points.