Despite finishing eighth in NHL scoring last year, Jiri Hudler is not the Calgary Flames’ biggest trading chip at Monday’s swap meet.
The player poised to bring an even greater return than the Lady Byng winner is defenceman Kris Russell.
In fact, armed with a cap hit of just $2.6 million and a boatload of intangibles, he is without question one of the best values on the trade market.
Given his versatility and all he can bring to a club, he’ll undoubtedly have one of the biggest impacts of all those who change teams before March.
With the inflationary nature of deadline deals and the fact no one is in more demand at this time of year than defencemen, Russell should land the Flames a late first round pick or a top prospect. A second-round pick for Hudler would be a coup.
With all due respect to Dan Hamhuis, none of the blue-line rentals available should be coveted more than Russell now that it appears Travis Hamonic will remain with the Islanders until the summer.
Analytics naysayers be damned. Let the bidding begin.
Of the more than a dozen teams interested, the L.A. Kings would be one of the most ideal dance partners for Russell, who would slot in nicely as the team’s fourth defenceman. As a fellow farmer (who owns a championship bull named Red Mile), Russell has ties to Darryl Sutter, who covets gutsy, selfless players like the Caroline, Ab. native.
Pittsburgh is also a serious contender who could use Russell’s versatility and grit, opening the door for a possible deal involving the Pens’ top goalie prospect, Matt Murray, which the Flames dearly need.
Tampa Bay is hoping to bolster its powerplay from the back end, which Russell can help with, prompting talk of a swap involving Jonathan Drouin.
None are too far fetched.
Those who don’t follow the Flames very closely may know him as a second-pairing defenceman on a bottom-feeding team.
However, as the son of a bullfighter who owns the NHL record for blocked shots, the 28-year-old junior stud comes armed with endless character and talent. The quiet blue-liner is revered in the dressing room, plays the powerplay, kills penalties and was the Flames best player in last year’s first round win over Vancouver.
In Mark Giordano’s absence last year no one stepped up to fill the void more than Russell. Keep in mind also the three defencemen ahead of him on the Flames depth chart include two men likely to be named to Team Canada Tuesday (Giordano and T.J. Brodie) and a shoe-in for the World Cup’s Young Gun squad, Dougie Hamilton.
The Flames would dearly love to keep Russell but the team and Russell’s agent are $1.5 million apart on what his annual take would be. On the open market this summer the unrestricted free agent is destined for a deal similar to the six-year, $33 million deals ($5.5 million annually) signed by Jeff Petry and Andrej Sekara. Russell’s numbers dwarf those of both players.
In the absence of being able to trade Dennis Wideman and his $5.25 million cap hit this year and next, the Flames simply can’t shoehorn Russell into a payroll that will include massive raises for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
“I want to be a Calgary Flame – I’ve said that,” said Russell Thursday.“But sometimes you don’t get what you want.”
Russell has missed the last six games due to a groin injury that might have some teams leery. However, he practiced with the Flames Thursday, hours after being cleared medically to play that night. Coach Bob Hartley said it would be the player’s decision after the pre-game skate, but management clearly shut that down, scratching him before he even took the skate for Thursday’s game against the Islanders.
It was the right call given how princely a return he stands to land the club by Monday.
“I don’t know if you can call him an unsung hero because we know his value,” said teammate Brandon Bollig.
“To the fan that doesn’t know a whole lot about hockey, he’s definitely one of the guys that’s underrated for sure. He brings a lot more to the team than points, obviously. Especially the way playoff hockey goes, having a guy like Russ on your side is huge.”
Bollig said Russell reminds him of Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson with whom the Flames winger won a Stanley Cup with.
“Both are so good defensively and so willing to block shots and willing to do whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the back of the net - they’re similar in many ways,” he said.
“He brings so many things to the table off the ice too. He wears a letter (an “A”) for a reason. That’s why he’s a highly-sought-after guy in the league right now.”
Flames defenceman Deryk Engelland likens Russell to Paul Martin – quietly able to do anything asked of him.
“All year this year he battles through everything and he does everything – powerplay, penalty kill, he blocks shots, chips in offensively. He’s a big anchor for our back end,” he said.
“Like Pauly he’s not flashy and he doesn’t put up good numbers but he does everything well. They’ve got deceiving speed, they’re good with the puck. I didn’t really notice Pauly until I played with him and the same goes for Russ. He’s sneaky good. He’s a battler and a huge part.”
A former Canadian junior defenceman of the year who won two world junior golds and several other top junior awards, Russell was a late bloomer at the NHL level. Because he’s only 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds he was drafted 67th overall in 2005 by Columbus where he wasn’t able to make much of an impact.
Same in his half season in St. Louis.
All that changed following a minor trade to Calgary where he found his junior touch, picking up 29 and 34 points his first two seasons. With the addition of Hamilton his opportunities and points diminished this season, although he still managed to average almost 23 minutes a night – third most on the Flames and 36th in the league.
Gaudreau said Russell has been a great role model to look up to and Hartley praises Russell for a consistency few players can match.
“He’s done many great things for us and you can always count on him – a huge competitor, very strong offensively and moves the puck well,” he said. “You know he’s going to be there, competing on every shift.”
He won’t be there long, which will ultimately benefit a team with a GM smart enough to recognize all Russell brings.