Some athletes stumble into being the center of attention despite their best efforts to remain anonymous. With the proliferation of analytics through sports, a new class of attention-grabbing athletes has become more commonplace by the year. Those guys that get headlines because modern statistics say they aren’t particularly good, but they happen to be loved by a group of fans self-described as “old school” are becoming quasi-celebrities.
Our old friend Kris Russell is the prototype for these types in hockey.
Russell, expected by some to sign a long-term deal last offseason after leaving the Dallas Stars, signed a one-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers were a much-improved team this past year, and Russell is receiving a large amount of the praise for that turnaround from some corners of hockey media. He hits the free agent market again, looking for that elusive longer-term deal.
I have no interest in dragging Russell again. It isn’t fun to do, and no one wants to get kicked in the gut over and over. But, Russell had very little to do with the Oilers’ turnaround. They have an MVP candidate in Connor McDavid. Leon Draisaitl is a superb young player. Cam Talbot should be nominated for the Vezina Trophy. Oscar Klefbom was healthy and came into his own. Patrick Maroon scored a ton. The list of reasons for the Oilers’ improvement is vast, and in no way should be credited to Russell.
What we do know is that Russell had one of the lower adjusted Corsi percentages of all defensemen in the league that got on the ice for 1,000 or more minutes at even strength, and the lowest of any Oilers defenseman. He’s the same Russell that has always existed, which, to some, is a good thing, and to others makes him someone you avoid giving term to because he simply isn’t very good.
Why this is relevant is because we know the Stars are in the market for defensemen. We know Jim Nill at the very least liked the player enough to risk trading a first-round pick for him in 2015. We know that Russell played the first 331 games or so of his NHL career for Ken Hitchcock. There are circumstantial reasons to believe the Stars could have interest in bringing Russell back.
Hitchcock and Nill’s last memory of Kris Russell as a Dallas Star is watching Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues wingers skate around Russell like he wasn’t even on the ice in the second round of the 2016 playoffs. For some of us the play where Troy Brouwer, Troy Brouwer, wafted around a sprawled out Russell will be burned into our retinas for years to come. That experiment ended predictably poorly, and should not be attempted again this offseason. The two people who would both be most responsible for making it happen witnessed that playoff series first hand.
Should the Stars seriously pursue defensemen, they should pursue legitimate top-four guys, preferably a top pairing guy. Players that fit that category don’t grow on trees, and everyone wants them. It won’t be easy, but settling for Russell on a long-term deal isn’t the solution. One thing the Stars do have is depth on the blueline. Russell is redundant unless he’s a stop gap. Given the positive vibes flowing from Edmonton, it doesn’t make any sense why he’d leave if a one-year deal is all he can find.
The Stars can find better if they get creative. They already have several who are better, and more of their own could theoretically improve under Hitchcock. A reunion doesn’t seem likely here, but enough circumstantial evidence exists to at least momentarily consider the possibility.