It wasn’t so long ago the Edmonton Oilers had no players with the last name Russell. It was a simpler time, a time of Smyths, Smiths and briefly even a Smithson. Then, in 2016, all that changed. First, an undrafted player from Denmark, Patrick Russell was brought in. Though Denmark is no hockey powerhouse, Russell had acquitted himself well in minor league and international play and so earned himself a shot.
Next, Kris Russell, a nine-year journeyman defenceman, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames, signed on with Edmonton just before the season started.
The period known as “The Russell Era” had begun. Kris, who never met a shot he wouldn’t block, became a fixture on the back end. His offensive counterpart, Patrick, began working his way up the lineup, spreading his wings for the Bakersfield Condors. The Oilers would go to the second round of the playoffs that year, Kris Russell putting up four assists in 13 games, and proving his reputation as a top-six defenceman. Patrick Russell had similar success in the minors, almost hitting double digits in both goals and assists.
After the Playoff Run, the Oilers Returned to Mediocrity
Nobody realized it at the time, but those early days were the peak of the Russell Era. Though Patrick showed steady improvement in the minor leagues, he’d be unable to translate it to NHL production, scoring zero goals in 51 appearances, an asterisk on a disallowed goal the closest he ever came. Kris occupied a spot in the middle of the Oilers’ defensive lineup but, along with the rest of his teammates, has not come close to winning a playoff round since.
This summer, the Oilers doubled down on Patrick, extending his contract through the end of the 2020-21 season. In spite of the deal being for minimal dollars, it’s a perplexing move. On a one-way deal for the first time in his playing history, he will be paid the full $700,000 regardless of whether he suits up in Edmonton or Bakersfield. Edmonton has consistently struggled with depth scoring, and to use up one of their fifty allowable contracts for a player who can’t seem to put the puck in the net seems strange, although we do know members of the Oilers brass are fans of him.
“I’m confident we’ve got some good young players coming up and I think Peter’s commitment to bringing further depth to the team was showcased with the recent signing of Finnish goalie Mikko Koskinen and the signing of forward Patrick Russell, who represented Denmark at the 2018 World Hockey Championship last month.”Bob Nicholson, Chief Executive Officer, Edmonton Oilers, 7/31/2018
Kris Russell’s Long Term Deal is Ending
Kris was given a four-year, $16 million deal following the 2016-17 playoff run. Some doubted the wisdom of that signing at the time. Like so many signings in the Peter Chiarelli era, Russell received both a no-movement clause, and a limited no-trade in the final two years of the arrangement. If only Craig MacTavish had been so generous when he was extending Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, the team might look quite different today. In year one of his extension, he scored one goal for every million dollars he was paid, and the rate of return would decline from there.
An Edmonton-based Hockey Hall of Fame writer said this of the signing: “I see Kris Russell blocking 213 shots and playing a lot of tough minutes well. And I see a team that is now playing to go all the way.” (from ‘Kris Russell Signing Shows Edmonton Oilers All In to Win Big Sooner Than Later,’ Edmonton Journal, 06/23/2017). He was half right anyway. Russell blocked 223 shots the next year, the league leader, and 185 shots in 2018-19, third-most in the league, while the Oilers missed the playoffs both seasons.
The question now for the Oilers, with big fish free agents like Alex Pietrangelo potentially coming on the market, is whether they can move Kris’ $4 million cap hit, which is only $1 million in actual salary this season making it attractive to budget teams reaching for the cap floor, using that space to add something significant to the roster. Russell fills a gap for any team, but perhaps isn’t the final puzzle piece of a soon-to-be Cup champion. The Oilers, for the first time in recent memory, have a cupboard full of defensive prospects and one of those might be ready to fill his spot.
Patrick will be on the roster next season, that seems clear. When you have the coach’s favor, which he seems to possess, you get a longer rope, and so while players like Tyler Pitlick, who demonstrably had more of a scoring touch, moved on to other rosters after the Oilers developed him for years, Patrick Russell remains. Depth scoring has been a massive issue for Edmonton for some time, visible as recently as the playoff preliminary round, so hopefully, Oilers general manager Ken Holland has some other offseason moves planned that will add to the team’s goal totals.
The Oilers Need Scoring Up and Down Their Roster
The series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks this August showed the importance of cagey veterans and depth production. Chicago’s defensive corps combined for 10 points against the Oilers, including three goals. The Oilers’ backend produced half of that and Kris Russell was kept entirely off the scoresheet in the series. Patrick Russell did not make it into a playoff game, which makes one question how he earned the one-way aspect of his new contract.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the Russell Era should end this offseason. The Oilers showed improvement during the regular season under Dave Tippett’s guidance but they need to take a significant step forward. Connor McDavid, the best player in the league, can’t continue to be left outside looking in on the playoffs year after year. It’s not fair to him, to Oilers fans, or to the larger viewing audience who deserve to witness the impressive skills McDavid puts on display night after night at Roger’s Place.
When one looks at the two teams that made it to this year’s Stanley Cup Final, their depth players are mainly budding young stars, or veteran players with clear roles, usually producing at a consistent rate, even if that rate is less impressive than the elite players further up their rosters. While both Russells have been good soldiers, neither tilts the ice in the Oilers’ favor. The team needs to replace them with skaters who will make more of an impact in their limited minutes on the ice.