Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports
Could the Toronto Maple Leafs, believed to be one of the more progressive and analytics-forward organizations in the National Hockey League, be considering an offer for Kris Russell – easily one of the most polarizing players of the BehindtheNet era?
They’re certainly interested, according to a report from TSN’s Darren Dreger.
Here’s what Dreger said on the subject during a special June 30 edition of Insider Trading:
Well the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking for a top-four defenseman and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’d show interest in Kris Russell, formerly of the Calgary Flames and more recently of the Dallas Stars. It’s unlikely that he’s going to stay with the Stars, of course he’s testing unrestricted free agency, 29-year-old left shot defenseman. Term and money matter of course and the list for Kris Russell is long, but the Toronto Maple Leafs need a defenseman and they’re interested in Russell.
This one is hard to fathom for a variety of reasons. Let’s start with fit. The three defenseman whom the Maple Leafs are returning that played the most minutes last season – Jake Gardiner, Matt Hunwick and Morgan Rielly – are all left-handed shooters, as is Russell.
Aside from about 450 minutes spent playing with former Flames teammate Chris Butler, who also plays the left side, Russell has spent almost all of his ice time over the past four years playing with partners who mostly play the right side – meaning he’s not that tested on his weak side. We know that handedness matters for defenseman and we can infer from how Babcock has constructed his Canadian Olympic teams that all things being equal, he’d like his blue liners to play on the right side.
So if the Maple Leafs are going to throw a whack of money and term at Russell to play in their top-four, its a bit difficult to figure out that fit element here. And I’m not the only guy who feels that way:
Despite some of his analytic numbers, the Leafs are interested in Kris Russell, I don’t know if I see the fit, but the Leafs do.
— Mike Johnson (@mike_p_johnson) June 30, 2016
Even beyond the left-handed, right-handed shot thing, I frankly remain skeptical in the extreme that Russell is ideally suited to a top-four role. If he is, it’s as a low-end second-pair defender, the sort that really requires the right type of partner to be effective.
I don’t mean to denigrate Russell unduly. I sort of think it’s silly and even a bit dehumanizing that one player – particularly an undersized player who has built a career by sacrificing his body and playing a hard, heavy game against bigger players – has become this flash point for the clash between older and newer school ways of looking at the game.
To Russell’s credit, he’s tough and fast and you have to admire the effectiveness with which he blocks shots – he’s genuinely elite in that area too, it’s not just a product of spending far too much time in his own end. Trevor Daley has generally possessed poor underlying numbers too (although not Russell-level poor), but he played a crucial role in Pittsburgh’s turnaround and was especially effective once he was paired with the right partner (Brian Dumoulin) in a secondary role.
Still it’s difficult for me, ultimately, to get over the fact that, for a player who is thought to make a big defensive impact, almost every defensive partner that Russell has spent a significant amount of time skating with over the past four seasons has surrendered shot-attempts against at a significantly higher rate skating with Russell than without him.
There’s also the issue of his anemic scoring rates. Russell has scored only six goals at 5-on-5 over the past four years and has produced even-strength offense at roughly the same rate as players like Barrett Jackman and Roman Polak during that same time frame. Russell’s value is primarily derived from the defensive end of the rink, no doubt, but all things being equal, you’d prefer a player soaking up top-four minutes to at least be able to contribute to the attack.
Look it’s not uncommon for the Maple Leafs to be attached to a high profile player or two in the lead up to free agency and sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere. On the morning of July 1, 2015, we were all wagging our tongues about Michael Frolik and Matt Beleskey and about how neither player made any sense for the Maple Leafs at this stage in their rebuilding cycle. And they signed elsewhere.
Or maybe we’ll wake up on Canada Day and Russell will replace Randy Carlyle as the personification of the hockey analytics debate in Toronto. It sounds exhausting, but that’s sort of what the fun (and terror) of July 1 is all about!