Sunday, February 05, 2017

Kris Russell, A Molehill.

 Remember when the boy started his hockey career? Four straight seasons and four straight championships. It was amazing. After that he played goal for a team that rode a hot start to a regular season championship but collapsed the last three months of the year, including the playoffs. Then he played for a thoroughly mediocre group and then last year he played for a very good team that could have won it all but lost to another very good team that did win it all.

 He's had a decent run but this winter ... hoo boy.

 His team started a solid oh and twelve. Yep you read that correctly. And with only two exceptions they had not been in any game. They had one game where they were down four after three minutes. Just before Christmas they were up by two with six minutes left. The boy had hurt his back so we were watching the end of the game together and he said it looks like we might win and I said son this lead is nothing and the other team suddenly seemed to realize the score and three minutes later THEY were up by two. There were some tears after that one.

 Four times in fifteen games they have given up 10 or more goals. Five more times they have given up nine. They can't score, they can't defend and their goalie can't stop a damn thing. Other than that things are going great!

 Three weeks ago they played a team that had beaten them 9-4, 9-3 and 9-4 (the other four teams in the division are all bunched together and competitive with each other). There was some balancing and the good guys did add two pretty good players just after Christmas, they had still lost both games since but only by four goals each time, so IMPROVEMENT! And this Saturday was their day. Their regular goalie wasn't there and his stand in played very well and there was no collapse and they held a kid who scored 7 on them a few weeks previous (!!!) to one goal and when the buzzer sounded they were 4-2 winners!

 There was much rejoicing!

 They then lost 10-1 and 10-3 but hey, a win!



 The reason the boy's team is terrible is a simple one, the usual one that plagues bad teams at any level. Not enough good players. It is why the Oilers have been terrible for a decade. It has nothing to do with chemistry or leadership or intangibles of any sort. They have not had enough good players for years and now that they have added a lot of good players over the past few years suddenly they are a much better team.

 The fact that they are a better team has nothing to do with trading Taylor Hall. Hall is gone, the team is better, therefore Hall was the problem is ... well, go sit in the corner and think for a while if that is your line of thinking on that.

 They are a better team because their most important players have been healthy, Cam Talbot has been very good, they have a fourth line that can bring some offence and their D is not Jeff Petry and a bunch of rookies and minor leaguers.

 They are a better team because, wait for it, they have added three NHL calibre defencemen to last year's roster.

And Kris Russell is one of those defencemen.

 Here's the thing about Kris Russell. I don't get him. Or maybe more accurately I don't get it, it being the idea of Kris Russell and why it is such a big deal.

 There is a guy online that I admire ( @ukranianplug ), we don't always agree on everything but he is a straight shooter and level headed and the other night he tweeted:

Is Russell great at blocking shots? Yes.

Does Russell tend to fall out of position & bleed chances against? Yes.

It's not one or the other.

 A (imagine!) measured and rational view.

 Russell has become the lightning rod this season. Part of this is because stats people don't like him and when stats people take a stand you invariably get the polar opposite fans staking out the opposite opinion and planting their flag there. But it goes deeper than that.

 After years of this (this being talking hockey on the interweb) I have learned one thing. People get an opinion and they can't be argued out of it. No amount of statistics, reasoning or evidence of any sort will make them change their mind. I have seen years of arguments that go simply like this: the Oilers would be a better team if they remove player A (a useful and in some cases excellent NHL hockey player) from the roster and replace him with anybody. (This is not just an Oilers' thing by the way).

 Think about that argument and how foolish it is. Remove their best player, best centre, best defenceman and put a minor leaguer in their place and the Oilers will be better. How do you come to this conclusion?

  It's because you don't like the player. You don't like him and you never will. I work with a guy who despises Phil Kessel and still will not acknowledge that he had a positive impact on the Pens or anything to do with their title last season. You can argue until you are blue in the face and he will always come back to 'cancer in the room, bad teammate' and so on. He has no evidence against overwhelming odds but he does not care. He hates Kessel and nothing will convince him that Kessel is a good NHL player. Seriously!

 And so it is with Russell. Hey I cheer for Russell, he plays for my team and I want him to do well because if he does well then the team does well. I just don't think he is very good. He skates very well. He works hard. He blocks shots, sure. And he is the team's fifth best defenceman and in a year both Nurse and Davidson will likely be better than him. He doesn't bring any offence and he is chaos in his own end too much for my liking. And the thing is, never mind the stats. Ask Falmes' fans or Dallas fans about the guy. Nice guy, works hard, good in the room. And that's about it. Eminently replaceable.

 And yet you have Elliotte Friedman, who I like a lot, mentioning him along with McDavid and Draisaitl as a guy the Oilers need to sign.

 Why is this? What is the attraction?

 I think we have to go back to the idea that the team is winning now and one difference between last year's team and this year's team is Kris Russell and so folks look at A and B and say that B has caused A whereas if the Oilers had added any other veteran Dman the same would have also been true. Why are the Oilers better this year:

McDavid healthy, Klefbom healthy, Talbot excellent, emergence of Draisitl, emergence of Maroon, having seven top nine NHL forwards, Sekera's excellence, addition of Larsson, addition of Benning, quality fourth line, addition of Russell.

That is how I would rank it, your mileage might vary, but I don't see adding Russell being that big a deal and he can be replaced easily.

But Russell is beloved, even though he is basically Steve Staios, (god I loved Steve Staios so maybe there you go!) only not as good as Steve Staios. Why is he beloved? The stats guys hate him, the Oilers are winning and also he goes to my pet theory about fans. Fans don't love Ales Hemsky or Oscar Klefbom or Phil Kessel because they can't relate to them. Fans didn't love Tom Gilbert even though he was amongst the tops in the league for shot blocking for years because he made the game look simple. Very good skater, smooth passer, smart player. But he made it look easy and so ironically despite being an excellent and prolific shot blocker he was derided as soft while Russell is lauded as Alberta grit personified. Maybe it was Gilbert's hair. (I actually guarantee that some dudes did not like him because of that hair.)

Russell is like so many players of that type, he is beloved because he works hard but also because fans identify with him. Unless you have been a top nine F/top 4 D in the NHL or grew up as a big fish in a small pond then you have known what it's like to be the guy who is too small, too slow, not good enough. And how do you hang in there? You work hard, check your ass off, block shots, dig for pucks in the corner, keep your teammates laughing. You watch Jordan Eberle stick handle and you can't relate to that talent. You see Kris Russell battle some guy bigger than him, fall down, get back up, block a shot and ring it around the boards and you think 'hmm that looks familiar ...'

Kris Russell is fine with me because he is an NHL defenceman and he is better than eighty percent of the guys who have played D for the Oilers this last decade. If come July and they need a guy to shore up the bottom pair and there is nobody better out there then give him a one year deal. Otherwise let him walk. Seriously. Who cares about Kris Russell.

 Although I will say if Chia gives him a longterm deal and the Oilers have to give up any sort of asset to keep a guy who was basically waived through the league last summer, well then we have a problem.