Russell wasn’t a mystery man, he was a 26-year-old veteran of more than 350 NHL games, a known commodity to NHL teams.
All of those teams, given the chance to acquire his rights at no asset cost, passed.
A few days later, the Calgary Flames swapped a fifth-round pick to the Blues for Russell’s rights, on the condition that the defenceman first be signed to a one-year contract. The Flames were interested in the player, but not interested enough to inherit the uncertainty of a salary arbitration case.
Russell’s reputation has trended significantly upward since that day.
He’s enjoyed the two best offensive seasons of his career in Southern Alberta, and he’s been employed not just as a depth piece but as a minute-munching mainstay on Calgary’s blue line.
Now he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, one the Flames may or may not be able to afford thanks to his newfound status.
From an analytics perspective, however, the question isn’t so much whether or not Calgary can afford him. It’s if the Flames should even want to keep him in the fold.
Despite his improved reputation Russell hasn’t actually changed so much from that player who cleared waivers so convincingly. He plays top-four minutes but on merit he’s not really a top-four NHL defenceman. That’s an unpleasant statement, but it’s one born from facts.
Russell plays in all situations for the Flames. He is a regular on both the power play and the penalty kill, but where he logs the most minutes is at five-on-five.
We won’t isolate his terrible start to the year, because all the Flames have been bad and it’s a short period of games, but instead we’ll compare Russell to the Flames’ other regular defenceman since his arrival in 2013-14:
|Selected 5-on-5 statistics, 2013-present|
At first glance that’s a wall of numbers, but it’s actually pretty simple. The first three figures are unblocked shots for and against in an average hour with each defenceman on the ice, commonly called Fenwick. The next three are high-danger scoring chances, as defined by war-on-ice.com. The last three are contextual: Quality of competition (based on ice-time) and the percentage of non-neutral zone shifts each player started at the attacking end of the rink.
All of these numbers say bad things about Russell.
With Russell on the ice:
- Calgary is bad at generating shots and bad at allowing shots. The Flames get pummeled by any shot metric when Russell is out there.
- Calgary isn’t better at producing high-danger chances, either. The Flames produce the same number of high-danger scoring opportunities with Russell on the ice as they do with Deryk Engelland out there. At least Engelland isn’t on the ice for a lot of high-danger chances against, Russell’s on-ice chance-against numbers are terrible.
- Context doesn’t help much, either. Russell faces only middling opposition and he starts more shifts in the offensive zone than anyone not named Dennis Wideman.
When we look at who Russell plays with, things don’t get any better. Wideman is his regular partner, but Wideman’s on-ice numbers don’t improve with Russell, even though his second-most common partner is the floundering Ladislav Smid.
T.J. Brodie is obviously better away from Russell, Chris Butler was better away from him and Dougie Hamilton’s Calgary debut looks much better if one nixes the time he’s spent with Russell from consideration.
Additionally, Hartley likes to match his best offensive line (generally Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau) with his go-to offensive defenceman pairing of Russell and Wideman. As a result, Russell spends a disproportionate percentage of his ice-time with the Flames’ best offensive weapons.
Last year he cashed-in on that partnership with an 11 on-ice shooting percentage, a number which eclipsed anything he’d seen in his career prior (over seven previous seasons, Russell’s highest on-ice shooting percentage was just 8.7 per cent).
That’s where the misconception lies. Russell has real offensive skill, so when a whole bunch of goals start going in when he’s on the ice it’s easy to look at his contributions and assume that he’s driving it.
The reality is that Calgary’s top offensive line is loaded with high-quality finishers (Hudler’s career shooting percentage is 15 per cent, Monahan’s is 16 per cent and Gaudreau shot 14 per cent as a rookie) and that’s why the on-ice shooting percentage is so high. Russell is certainly involved in those plays, but Calgary’s shooters are the ones driving the goal totals.
Take away those high-percentage scorers he plays with and Russell is actually a bit of a disaster.
He’s certainly capable on the power play and from the blue line in at evens, but he’s a one-way player and he gives up a lot more than he creates. Shots against and dangerous-chances against rise alarmingly when Russell is on the ice, and he doesn’t do enough in the offensive zone to compensate.
The Flames should almost certainly move him when they can. Russell’s reputation is such that he’s likely to garner a significant return, while his presence in the top-four isn’t likely to be missed.
He’s an NHL player, but he’s probably best suited to a role on the third pairing and on the power play, rather than as the all-situations workhorse the Flames seem to be convinced he is.