Russell, veteran defencemen feeling pressure of cap squeeze

Calgary Flames defenceman Kris Russell has defied the odds his entire career, his toughness and the inability to quit has been paramount throughout his life.

Kris Russell, and his agent Allain Roy, appear to have blown it.

Sure, there are whispers of remaining opportunity around the league for Russell, a shot blocking, No. 4-5 defenceman who has been a negative target for the analytics voices for some time. Because — and it’s hard to argue — if you’re blocking all those shots, doesn’t it mean that your team never has the puck when you’re on the ice?

Regardless, there was plenty of opportunity for Russell coming out of last year’s trading deadline, where he had been considered a major catch by the Dallas Stars.

NHL coaches still obsess with keeping the puck out of their own net far more than devising ways of putting it in the opposition’s net.

Also, Russell is what is known inside the business as a warrior. His pain threshold and level of intensity rubs off on the rest of the bench, so he can be used as an example to far more skilled players who sacrifice half as much in pursuit of a goal as Russell does in stopping one.

The mistake that Russell’s camp made?

Teams, like most houses, are built in the summertime. Now the walls are up and the roofs are on, and he’s out on the doorstep with winter closing in.

This is especially dangerous in a year when the cap did not go up, like this summer. That left far less opportunity on July 1 for unrestricted free agents as a whole, and particularly those who thought they’d score the kind of deal in July of 2016 that guys were getting two and three summers ago.

So Russell and his advisor clearly overestimated the market. They, like everyone else, had the one-week free agent “courting period” to assess the market, figure out what they were worth, and get a contract.

They failed.

Now, general managers are no doubt saying, “Just wait ‘til we watch a few of our guys in camp. Something will open up. I just need to move a couple of contracts…”

Well, if there was a shortage of money in the market on July 1, you can be sure that a greater shortage exists today. That means moving contracts is almost an impossibility between now and the start of the 2016-17 season.

A sure sign of the times is the record number of players on professional tryouts around the NHL. On defence alone, it’s a crowded market.

The Tampa Bay Lightning cut ties with PTO candidate James Wisniewski this week. He has had two knee surgeries, played just 14 games over the last two seasons, and (we’re guessing here) is seriously contemplating retirement today.

Barret Jackman will formally announce his retirement on Tuesday, another link to a different time in hockey that is now gone for good. Tough, strong, and like Russell the consummate warrior, Jackman just can’t keep up with the game anymore at age 35, an inevitable outcome as the player slows and the game speeds up.

After 589 NHL games, veteran Swede Nicklas Grossman may be at the end of his line as well. He’s on a PTO with the Flames, but not said to be stealing anyone’s job in Cowtown.

Eric Gryba is trying out in Edmonton in search of the seventh spot on the blue line. He is a prototype of a player who was once considered a necessary component of every defensive corps. Today however — at only 28 years old — we question whether “big and strong” can play if it is not accompanied by “fast and puck moving.”

Dan Boyle is expected to announce his retirement on Wednesday, without a contract at age 40. Mike Weber is on a PTO in St. Louis, an impossibly good D-corps to crack. Christian Ehrhoff, booned by some success at the World Cup of Hockey with Team Europe, is on a PTO with Boston. Former Canuck Matt Bartkowski is in Ottawa on a PTO.

The much travelled Adam Pardy is on a PTO at Florida, but at least he has chosen a team with ample cap space.

There are only 13 teams with more than $4 million of available cap space, according to, and some of those teams — like Calgary, Buffalo and Anaheim with prominent RFAs still unsigned — have less cap space available than it shows.

Kris Russell will play somewhere this season, whether he signs with someone shortly or waits for November injuries. He is too good a player, at close to his prime at 29 years of age, not to.

But we are willing to wager he won’t end up with the same money in November that he would have had on July 1, had he and his counsel not misread the market.

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