Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. I don’t hate Kris Russell as a player at the NHL level. I think he can help a team win and can be part of a successful team if he plays in the right role. Last season, I thought the Oilers were playing him too high up in the lineup but he held his ground and played well for the most part.
The problem is, GM Peter Chiarelli decided to gamble on Russell, assuming that last year was the new normal for a player that really has never established himself as a top-four defender in the NHL. There’s a pretty big reason why Russell went unsigned until October last year and why many people I talked to were stunned he got a four-year deal worth $4 million per season.
It’s not that Russell is a horrible player, he isn’t, but it’s that he and his agent believed he was a proven top-four defender in the NHL. Simply put, he is not. That said, all it takes is for one person to believe in that thought process, and luckily for them Chiarelli believed in it and paid him as such.
Now, the Oilers are caught in a pretty tough spot. Russell hasn’t been terrible this season, but he hasn’t come close to living up to his $16 million contract. In fact, even with Andrej Sekera still out with an ACL injury, Russell has actually been playing LESS this season. You read that right, with Edmonton needing a few players to step up in a time of injury crisis, the team is trusting Russell less and less. Uh-oh.
Atta Be Darnell!:
The good news in this is that Darnell Nurse has taken another step forward in his young career and has handled a top-four role quite nicely early this season. Does that mean Nurse has emerged as a top-four defender for good? It’s too early to tell for sure, but he’s played well this season and certainly has earned more ice time in that role. It’s one of the few positives this season for the Oilers, that’s for sure.
Nurse emerging so far has pushed Russell down that depth chart, no doubt about that. I’d argue Nurse has passed Russell at this point, and I’m more confident in the young defender than I am in the veteran. I just think Nurse gives you more and can do more things when he is out there. Edmonton needs that right now.
It’s Still Disappointing:
So, Nurse steps up and Russell moves down the depth chart. That’s good, right? Normally I’d say yes, it would be but not in this case. Why? Well, Edmonton needed a defender to step up because of Andrej Sekera’s absence. Russell sliding out of the top-four means Edmonton still has a hole in the top portion of their depth chart.
Nurse has played very well with Adam Larsson, but Edmonton is still searching for second pairing help to play with the struggling Oscar Klefbom. Matt Benning is in that role currently, but he’s been very up and down and quite frankly I’m not sure he can handle it right now. It would be a lot better for his confidence if he were playing on the third-pairing at this time.
He can’t, however, because Russell hasn’t lived up to his contract and is currently on the third unit. Last season, Todd McLellan trusted Russell in almost every big spot with Sekera, but now Russell rarely sees the ice in big moments it feels like.
Ice time wise, Russell averaged 21:13 last year, firmly playing a top-four role for McLellan. This season? Russell has been averaging 17:33, almost a full four minute decrease over last year. That’s not a small loss in time, that’s like falling off a cliff.
Ironically, Russell already has six points this season after getting just 13 a year ago, but the point remains that he is being trusted less. The Oilers have decreased his ice time and they aren’t using him the way they did last year.
Normally, especially with Nurse emerging, that would be a good problem to have. Instead? A team desperate for cap space, one that flushed useful assets this summer to sign Russell, is paying a third-pairing defender $4 million a year for the next three seasons after this.
If Russell is falling down the depth chart even with Sekera out, what is going to happen when Andrej returns in as early as two weeks? Is Russell going to be Edmonton’s number six defender? Judging by usage, it certainly appears that way.
If the Oilers seriously want to keep a plethora of cap space open, then they should look at moving Russell before someone like Klefbom or God forbid Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If you don’t want to pay Jordan Eberle $6 million a year to score 50 points in a down year, then how can you justify paying Russell $4 million a year to be your number six defender?
You can’t. So far, this contract has been a generally disappointing one, and appears to be another case of Peter Chiarelli overpaying for role players he fell in love with. Ironically, that was his kiss of death in Boston.