Kris Russell has a career Corsi of about 51.6 per cent, but in the past four seasons the Edmonton Oilers defenceman’s Corsi dips to 46 per cent, a number that has made Russell one of the hockey world’s most polarizing players.
Based on a number of possession and shot metrics, the hockey analytics community has little value for Russell. Today in Edmonton, where Russell is playing out a one-year deal, the Fancy Stats community lives in fear that Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli will “make the mistake” of signing the soon-to-be 30-year-old Russell to a four-year contract.
However, hockey people — defined as coaches, managers, players and scouts — have an almost unilateral respect for Russell’s gritty, hard-nosed game. The fact that the Oilers have stats that paint him as a premier puck-mover in the NHL exacerbates that opinion in Edmonton’s front office, where Chiarelli maintains access to different stats than the ones we’ve found today on excellent sites like Corsica and HockeyAnalysis.com.
“He ranked second (among NHL defencemen) last year in passes leading to (offensive zone) entries,” Chiarelli said Tuesday from Buffalo. “With his skating and effective shot blocking, there are numbers that go the other way from traditional Corsi.”
The analytics set devalues Russell’s shot blocking — he is third in the NHL again with an average of 2.8 blocks per game — citing that it means he can’t ever get the puck out of his zone. But Chiarelli’s stats defy that opinion, and are buttressed by the fact that teammates have a higher shooting percentage when Russell is on the ice than all but one other Oilers defenceman.
“Because he puts them into position to shoot by giving them passes that lead to entries into the zone,” Chiarelli explained. “Cleaner (entries), but more of them. That’s a significant stat.”
Chiarelli charts Corsi, but takes his analytical eye elsewhere when it comes to defencemen. He wants to know who gets the puck and moves it intelligently and effectively.
“This is passes that lead to an (offensive zone) entry,” Chiarelli said. “So he’s got to get the puck, make the play to get into a passing position, then he’s got to make the pass that leads to an offensive zone entry — which is a very significant part of the game when you want own the puck from zone to zone.
There are only seven Oilers defencemen who have played more than three games, so for the purposes of this piece, we’ll limit Edmonton’s D-corps to this seven-man group. Here are a few samples of stats that shape the opinion on Russell:
• Russell plays the second most minutes per game (21:06) on the Oilers defence, but is tied for fifth with just four points. He has no goals this season, and averages 5.3 goals and 25 points per 82 games played. So his offence limits Russell to second pairing status at best.
• Russell ranks fifth on the Oilers in shots against over 60 minutes (29.9), and last in shots for (27.68) As the nerds say, “he bleeds shots against.” In fact, Letang, Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Roman Josi, Aaron Ekblad and Tyson Barrie all surrender more shots against per 60 than Russell. But of course, their offensive output balances off overall performance more than Russell.
• Edmonton goalies have a .949 saves percentage while Russell is on the ice at even strength — 17th among NHL defencemen who have played 300 minutes this season. That number is tops on Edmonton, meaning the quality of shots Russell has surrendered this season are inferior to virtually every other Oilers defenceman. (The team’s save percentage overall is .915.)
• Russell’s PDO — the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage — is best among Oilers regular defencemen at 104.1. That ranks 10th in the NHL among regular D-men.
On one hand, the Corsi of virtually every Oilers player is higher when he’s not on the ice with Russell, including Connor McDavid’s, which takes nearly a 20-point dip. On the other, the Oilers have become a far stingier team this season, have a superior penalty kill, and play a harder, grittier game led by Russell and fellow newcomer Adam Larsson.
Russell plays tougher minutes with more shot-blocking involved — the kind that slows you down next shift, unlike power-play time.
“At critical points in the game, can they trust him? At key times can he play against good players and not get beat?” asked a Western Conference front office man. “Russell is under-sized, and he lays it on the line every night. That’s why coaches and teammates appreciate him. He can’t afford to take a night off to stay in the league, and that sets an example. Those are the intangibles that make Russell a good player.”
Edmonton does not have a legit No. 1 defenceman, but this is their best collection of D-men in years. The corps still needs work, but Russell has become a valued trend-setter, helping to make the Oilers harder to play against — another unquantifiable characteristic.
“There are a lot of positive Corsi guys who are not good players, and there are some negative relative Corsi guys who are very good players,” said Chiarelli. “Kris, he’s been a gritty defender all his life. His positives (Chiarelli tracks decisions that turn out both negatively and positively) when he’s moving the puck are the best on our team.”
Chiarelli can not sign Russell to that extension until after Jan. 1, and the expansion draft could delay it until July 1. One senses, however, that Russell will be back in Edmonton next season.
“Using the analytics as supplementary information — and the eye test — he passes muster significantly. That’s from 20 years of experience,” the GM said. “He’s a very good transitional defenceman and skater, and that bears out on his stats from the entry stat. And the eye test.
“So I’m pretty happy with him.”