Russell’s value to Oilers proven by what goes missing in his absence

Dustin Byfuglien runs over Tyler Motte, Jamie Benn goes up and over Marcus Foligno and Sam Bennett rocks J.T. Miller in another body booming edition of the hits of the week.

EDMONTON — Somehow, Kris Russell has become one of those players who many fans truly appreciate only when he’s out of the lineup.

It’s a bit of an insult, really — to those fans, of course. And the analytics community, which has been tough on Russell.

“The stats guys don’t like it,” he said of his game. “Teammates don’t mind it though.”

On the shelf for the sixth straight game tonight, Russell’s value is proven by what goes missing in his absence. Oilers fans — even those who decry his style, or his $4 million paycheque — are noticing.

So we set out to ask a few NHL players exactly that: What is it about Russell’s game that they love, that so many fans can’t appreciate, or notice, from their vantage point?

“I don’t think they realize the leadership, the experience he brings inside the room. How he can help the younger guys in between periods, or even when he’s sitting next to them on the bench after a shift,” said Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot, who will back up Mikko Koskinen as Vancouver visits Rogers Place tonight. “Sometimes, when it comes from a teammate and not the coach standing behind you, that lesson comes across a little better.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Russell is out with an undisclosed injury, (believed to be a groin) at the same time that Oscar Klefbom is missing, having had surgery to repair a broken finger. The void left by those players has resulted in a three-game losing streak, as an Oilers team that had been locking things down defensively under head coach Ken Hitchcock has somehow lost the key of late.

“It’s unfortunate when you get two guys go down at the same time,” the quiet, soft-spoken Russell said Thursday. “Just doin’ my best to get back as soon as I can. I hate sittin’ and watchin’. Hopefully it’s sooner than later.”

He may play Saturday when San Jose visits, but for now Russell’s absence becomes a study on two of hockey’s viewpoints: from inside the dressing room, and from overtop the spread sheet.

As analytics have made their indelible mark on the game, Russell (and players like him) have been deemed expendable by the folks who chart PDO or create the heat maps. It’s not a sign that those people don’t know the game as much as it is an example of a system that can chart player movement and possession numbers, but cannot yet quantify the intangibles that still have a great deal of meaning inside an NHL dressing room.

We asked Alex Edler for a Kris Russell comparable. He immediately concluded, “Mattias Ohlund.”

“Mattias Ohlund had a very high standard. In my eyes, he never had a bad game,” said Edler. “Always solid. Always played with a team-first mentality. Did whatever he needed to help the team. Sacrifice the body.

“Maybe they don’t do flashy things that end up on the highlights. But, when they’re not in the lineup you really notice it. You need those types of players, who always play solid and don’t make very many mistakes.”

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Look up and down an NHL lineup, and you’ll see that 30-40 per cent of players don’t have a significant impact in the points department. Among that group the valuable ones find a niche that allows the scorers to score, the goalies to make a few more saves, and often help all of the above with the mental part of the game as well.

“There are certain (qualities) that, through analytics, you just don’t get,” Talbot said. “Look at a guy like Matt Hendricks. ‘The Glue Guy.’ Those guys, the intangibles they bring, I don’t think you can fully realize that unless you are inside this room.

“(Russell) will put his body in front of just about anything, which is what we’ve come to love about him,” said the Oilers goalie. “But there are those little plays he makes, just reading the rush. Some of the younger guys, they’re just not there yet. It takes time to get to that level. It’s the little things like that that fans don’t see, or they under-value.”

In the five games Russell has missed, Edmonton has collected just three points. There’s no doubt Klefbom’s absence exacerbates that, but still, if he can make his return Saturday the Oilers will be a happy group.

“The guys who have jumped in have done a good job, but obviously I’ve been here a little longer and the team understands the way I’m going to play. Players can read off that,” said Russell. “I’m more defensive-minded. If there’s a play I can make I’m going to try to, but I play a little bit safer game.”

Players like safe. Coaches like safe.

Unfortunately for Russell, he is an uneventful player who lives in a stats world that charts events.

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