MONTREAL — The Dallas Stars were looking for a defensive-minded defenceman to balance out their blue line ahead of this year’s trade deadline.
They got it in the form Kris Russell.
GM Jim Nill acquired Russell from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 29 for defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka, forward prospect Brett Pollock and a 2016 second-round pick that turns into a first rounder should the Stars advance to the Western Conference final.
Russell’s transition into the Dallas lineup has been seamless to date.
“He can play the minutes, and I think his mobility and his puck moving is something that can help us,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “I’ve been really impressed so far.”
Russell's transition in Dallas has been a smooth one and says he hasn’t been left to fend for himself for a meal since landing with the Stars.
But adjusting to a new team and systems always has its challenges.
“It’s a learning curve, and I feel every day I’m getting a little bit more comfortable with it,” said Russell. “It’s an up-tempo (system), but it’s a lot of similarities to Calgary. There hasn’t been a huge drastic change, but every team does things a little bit different.
“There’s little habits from the old systems I was playing that I gotta get away from.”
Dallas already had offensive defencemen John Klingberg, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Johnny Oduya in place. All four have combined for 128 points this season.
It's the little defensive things on the ice that Russell's teammates like from his game.
“His positioning is what impresses me the most,” said Stars defenceman Jamie Oleksiak Tuesday. “He knows where to put himself so he can eliminate scoring chances.”
Russell shattered the league-record with 283 block last season and ranks second in that category so far this year. No player has averaged more blocks per game than Russell (3.4).
In three games with the Stars, Russell has already blocked seven shots.
“We get a lot out of it (blocked shots). It brings our bench up during games,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “You see a guy putting his body on the line for the rest of his teammates—it’s just as big as any other part of this game.”
Russell is quickly proving to the Stars that there’s more to his arsenal than his willingness to sacrifice his body.
He’s played more than 24 minutes per game in the two matchups since Klingberg suffered a lower-body injury. Russell had four shots in the team’s 4-2 win over New Jersey last Friday and added an assist on the power play in a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators Sunday.
“Mobility” and “puck moving” are descriptions typically reserved for the kind of player the analytics crowd adores, but Russell was anything but that in his time with the Flames.
Calgary was among the NHL’s worst possession teams in the last three seasons, but the Flames proved more adept at generating shot attempts when Russell was on the bench than they were at doing so when he was on the ice. He had a 43 per cent Corsi For and ranked among the team’s least effective defencemen at generating scoring chances.
Russell averaged over 23 minutes of ice-time per game in Calgary, played in all situations, and he moved the puck more efficiently than anyone gave him credit for.
On a Stars team that ranks second in the NHL in Corsi For, Russell’s found himself on the positive side of the possession ledger in all three games he’s played so far.
But, Dallas doesn't want Russell to change his game. While the team is keeping pace with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues for a chance to win the Central Division, they feel that he’s adding a dimension they were previously lacking.
“He just always seems to make the right play,” said Goligoski. “There’s not a team in this league that guy wouldn’t help. So it’s a great pickup for us.”