Kris Russell: Oilers Most Likely Moved Before the 2020-21 Season

Next season, the Edmonton Oilers will have some decisions to make. Whether a much higher salary cap gets put in place by the NHL (unlikely) or the NHL allows for compliance buyouts (also potentially unlikely), there will be a few players on the Oilers roster that may not be with the team next season.

With that in mind, Kris Russell becomes the first entry in our series of players the Oilers may move prior to the start of the 2020-21 NHL season — whenever that begins:

Kris Russell vs. Adam Larsson

Allan Mitchell of The Athletic, at one time, believed that Adam Larsson might be a casualty on the Oilers blue line with the emergence of young stars like Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones. But, as the season wore on, Larsson started making a case for himself.

Edmonton Oilers Adam Larsson
Edmonton Oilers’ Adam Larsson (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Well, perhaps it wasn’t as much about Larsson making a case for himself as it was about Kris Russell not really doing so.

Part way through the season, (and thanks in no part to injuries) Mitchell changed his outlook on Larsson’s future, citing certain statistics to back up the idea that Russell will be the odd man out. It’s an outlook shared by this writer as well.

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Russell Is Too One-Dimensional

Russell offers a few great qualities. He’s one of the most experienced Oilers in terms of both games played and playoff appearances and he’s certainly well-liked, known to be as tough as nails. Unfortunately, that’s not enough when your game is mostly about one thing.

Kris Russell Oilers
Kris Russell, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A typical shot-blocking machine, Russell is still quite effective on the penalty kill. And, if the Oilers were to move him, they’d need to find a replacement. But, as Russell turns 33 in May and stays a polarizing player for fans in Edmonton, the Oilers may realize they’re simply paying too much for a defenseman who isn’t as well-rounded as some others.

Russell’s game is not at all about transporting the puck in a puck-moving league. In fact, he’s one of the weaker Oilers’ defenseman when it comes to making a good first pass. Meanwhile, Larsson isn’t known to be a puck-mover, but he does a fine job, while being five years younger, more versatile, and more capable of logging big minutes.

Russell doesn’t play the power play, he doesn’t offer great five-on-five production and he’s not getting the call from bench boss Dave Tippett. Is being a penalty-kill player enough when you’re being paid $4 million per season?

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Too Expensive To Be Bottom-Pair D-Man

For nearly the same money, Larsson can play on your top pair. Today, Russell isn’t much more than an expensive bottom-pair blueliner on a good team. In fact, as Mitchell points out, “the emergence of [Caleb] Jones has changed the equation and Russell is in much danger on the Oilers roster.” In other words, Russell is being surpassed in the Oilers lineup by a rookie.

Caleb Jones Oilers
Caleb Jones (Photo Credit: Connor Mah/Flickr)

Jones’ underlying numbers are better than Russell’s and he’s only in his inaugural NHL season. Pointing out that Jones gets a bit less ice time but has a better shot differential, Fenwick score and goals-for stats, Mitchell adds that Jones is even better when playing against elite-level competition.

Mitchell writes:

Based on these numbers (Jones has played almost 600 5-on-5 minutes this season, that’s a large sample) the Oilers are better with Jones in the lineup. Russell’s penalty killing role will need to be addressed but the savings and upgrade in moving to Jones are crystal clear.

source – ‘Lowetide: Which Oilers veterans are in roster peril?’ – Allan Mitchell – The Athletic – 03/19/2020

That doesn’t bode well for Russell when it seems the Oilers are only growing more and more confident in Jones’ game.

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How Do the Oilers Move Russell?

That’s a good question and fortunately for Edmonton, there may still be a GM or two that find a player of Russell’s skill set useful. Not a bad player, he’s just not a luxury the Oilers can afford.

If a compliance buyout became an option, Edmonton would likely use it on James Neal, thus the Oilers might have to look at a trade, plus a sweetener in any deal to get something done. That shouldn’t be too tricky a task considering he’s not drastically overpaid and Russell has only one season remaining on his contract with a modified no-trade clause that gives Edmonton some flexibility.

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