For the first time as the GM of the Dallas Stars, Jim Nill made a move that saw fans coming down squarely on both sides of the fence. Among heavy speculation that Dallas was after the Canucks’ Dan Hamhuis, talk of Nill and company adding Calgary’s Kris Russell blossomed from mere rumor to done deal shortly before Monday afternoon’s trade deadline.
The Stars sent Jyrki Jokipakka, Brett Pollock and a conditional second rounder to Calgary for the veteran defenseman, with the pick turning into the Stars’ first rounder in 2016 if Dallas makes the Western Conference Final and Russell dresses for half of the playoff games up to that point.
For Stars fans, spoiled by Nill’s ability to make moves that are generally considered sweeping victories from day one, a trade in which the water is muddy and that brings with it an outcome that may not reveal itself until after the Stars’ season is over is perhaps scarier than it should be. It’s led to a multitude of confused tweets and passionate takes, but how does this move really shake out for Dallas?
Passing the Old-School Eye Test
On one hand, Russell makes sense for the Stars when viewed through the lens of old-school analysis. His propensity for blocking shots is well-noted (he ranks second this season in that category with 174), he’s lauded as a strong presence in the locker room and he should bring veteran stability to Dallas’ defensive group. Nill has been around the game a long time, and his ability to judge players is more than proven, whether it be through statistics or his intuition.
I know the knocks on Russell, but he's one of the the most competitive players you'll find and elevated his game in last year's playoffs.
— Randy Sportak (@RandySportak) February 29, 2016
Kris Russell is 28 years old, has played over 560 NHL games and 24 playoff games. He's also got the Nill-coveted history of wearing a letter
— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) February 29, 2016
The return may seem steep at first blush, but teams in contention are often forced to weigh the value of an addition at the deadline against the value of prospects and draft selections. That’s a better position to be in than the alternative, and if Russell can help the Stars reach the Conference Final, all worry about an extremely late first-round pick should dissolve as easily as it came.
In addition, Russell is a pending free agent. If it doesn’t work out in Dallas, the Stars aren’t married to him and haven’t sacrificed too much of their future. Pollock was a nice offensive piece at the junior level and Jokipakka was a solid, big-bodied young player, but neither is going to make or break Dallas’ window of contention, which is just beginning to open.
Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell and Julius Honka are all coming down the line, and that’s without mentioning the logjam that already exists in Dallas with Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak. Even if Russell and Goligoski both depart in due time, Nill has clearly assembled pieces he feels will have an impact at the NHL level sooner rather than later. The Stars have a surplus of young defensemen, and Nill can replace the lost pick at the draft if he sees fit. He’s already said as much:
On a conference call with GM Jim Nill just now, said he's going to try to get the 2nd Rd pick from Russell trade back "maybe at the draft."
— Owen Newkirk (@OwenNewkirk) February 29, 2016
In the best-case scenario, Russell has an immediate impact on the Stars and helps stabilize what’s been a shaky back end, the Stars make a deep playoff run and the club can make a final decision regarding his future in Dallas after the season has wrapped up. It all sounds like it could work, and there’s no reason not to trust that Nill knows what he’s doing at this point. However, let’s take a look at the argument put forward by those on the other side of the fence in the aftermath of today’s deal.
An Analytical Conundrum
The advanced statistics crowd love to talk about Russell. While his proponents point to his shot blocking and intangibles, those focused on the numbers are quick to point out his underlying flaws, and for good reason. Check out his HERO chart from 2012-13 to 2014-15. His impact on his linemates’ shots generated is middling at best, while his impact on shot suppression and possession are squarely within bottom-pairing numbers.
For reference, here’s Alex Goligoski’s over the same time frame. As a small, puck-moving, offensively inclined defenseman, he also has a positive impact on his team’s possession and shot statistics. Critics of the trade denounced the addition of Russell over Hamhuis to a team that already trends toward small, high-event defensemen. While the Stars standing pat on Hamhuis was likely a product of Vancouver’s asking price and Nill’s unwillingness to overpay, the point remains: would it have been better to stay on the sidelines instead of adding Russell?
Russell, who says he’s over his groin injury and should slot into the Stars’ lineup as soon as the team can file the appropriate visa paperwork to get him here, will likely occupy a top-four role in Dallas. Head coach Lindy Ruff has options regarding how to distribute his defensemen, and Russell could slide up and down the lineup and see time with several different partners throughout the remainder of the season.
Another ponderable: With Russell trade, do you break up Goligoski-Klingberg? Maybe, Klingberg-Oduya, Goligoski-Russell, Demers-Benn??
— Bruce LeVine (@BruceLeVinePuck) February 29, 2016
Russell will certainly have an immediate impact on Dallas’ on-ice product, but the veteran’s acquisition may foreshadow a truly new era in Dallas: one of moves for deadline rentals to be judged at a later date, the playoff pushes that follow and, if all goes according to Nill’s plan, a return to form as a true contender for the sport’s greatest prize.