Kris Russell and absolutely nonsensical overpayment (Trending Topics)

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Kris Russell and absolutely nonsensical overpayment (Trending Topics)
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The NHL is a lot smarter today than it used to be. But there are still serious blindspots that many general managers share when it comes to evaluating talent and determining what it's worth. 

For example, goaltending remains a little-understood position for which many players in this league are overpaid. There is often little correlation between a goaltender's normal performance level and the contracts they pull.

This is also true of guys who are decent enough hockey players for the bulk of their career but who have a lot of success in a particularly deep postseason run, and end up breaking the bank because of it.

Finally, there is a third group of player types that are reliably overvalued in this league: Defense-first players.

You see it over and over again: Guys who can maybe chip in a little bit offensively but whose main job is touted as being a “shutdown” guy will get more money than any reasonable viewing of their game and numbers would suggest.

The latest to fall into this category, almost inexplicably, seems to be Kris Russell of the Calgary Flames.

In Bob McKenzie's latest column, it is so written: 

You don’t have to look very hard to find the guys Russell would view as open-market comparables: Montreal’s Jeff Petry got five years at $5.5 million. Edmonton’s Andrej Sekera got six years at $5.5 million. Similarly under-sized blueliner Jared Spurgeon collected $5.2 million per year on a three-year term in Minnesota.

Were Russell to go to July 1, is there any doubt he’s going to get a five-year offer for between $5 million and $5.5 million? And he may well be looking for more than that, both in term and dollars.

This is the actual craziest thing I have ever read.

Let's just start at the very beginning: Giving Kris Russell a cap hit of $5.5 million would, at this moment, tie him for the 22nd-largest cap hit in the league among defensemen. He would be tied with Dan Girardi, Matt Carle, Andrej Sekera, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, James Wisniewski, the aforementioned Jeff Petry, Brooks Orpik, Nick Leddy and Tyler Myers. Obviously that will change this summer as perhaps a few guys are likely to get raises above that level as they hit UFA status.

I would say that list should perhaps include Keith Yandle, Alex Goligoski, Torey Krug and maybe one or two others. It should absolutely not under any circumstances whatever include Kris Russell. If you pay Russell $5.5 million a year, and that moves him into the top-25 or so in the league among defenders, then you're basically saying you think Russell is a top-25 — that is, clear No. 1 — defender.

Which we all understand fundamentally is absolute nonsense.

Travis Yost had a pretty good explanation yesterday for why giving Russell $25 million (or more, as McKenzie suggests!) would be “a waste of money,” but he frankly does not go far enough to illustrate the depths of Russell's overvaluation of himself. The market bears what it bears, of course, and if Russell can trick some general manager into giving him that much money because he blocks shots, then more power to him.

However, you can consider this a public service announcement that Russell is barely worth the $2.6 million he pulls against the cap right now, and is little more than a third-pairing defenseman.

For instance, here are his score-adjusted 5-on-5 stats over the last three seasons versus what his team did when he was off the ice:

NHL
NHL

Oh you know what? I'm sorry. My mistake, folks. This is really embarrassing. Those are the stats for Andrew MacDonald, another heralded “shutdown defenseman who can chip in offensively” for the three seasons before his six-year, $30 million extension with the Flyers kicked in.

Boy is my face red.

MacDonald spent one more year at the NHL level before being assigned to the AHL at great cost to his team, where he has played 42 games. To his credit, he's really punking out everyone Lehigh Valley comes across, with five goals and 30 assists.

Here are Russell's stats, and just so I don't get confused this time, I put them next to MacDonald's.

NHL
NHL

Now, the one thing you can say for Russell is that his team is better at not-allowing goals when he's on the ice. And this is over a three-year period, so you have to say that it's potentially a repeatable skill. However, it's a “results” thing and not a “process” thing, and the Flames really ought to have learned their lesson about that by now.

One must also keep in mind that the Flames are so bad that even being 8.3 percent better than the rest of the team still leaves you below 50 percent. And if every other aspect of his games — attempt and shot suppression, high-quality chance suppression — are worse when he's on the ice, then that says plenty about his actual quality.

Moreover, Russell plays mostly middle-pairing competition for the Flames thanks to the blessed presence of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie — the latter of whom, by the way, would incomprehensibly have his brand-new salary eclipsed by Russell on this apparent deal — whereas MacDonald at least played the toughest minutes the Islanders and Flyers (briefly) could give him in that time.

And this is, again, in comparison with a guy a team like the Flyers would rather bury in the minors and just carry a ton of dead cap space than actually use at the NHL level. Russell is a reasonable comparable there.

And if you look at per-60 data over that time, the problems are even worse for Calgary's “shutdown guy.”

NHL
NHL

Andrew MacDonald is better in almost every way than Russell. This isn't particularly debatable. For a “shutdown” guy, the fact that Russell concedes more of everything than a (very good) AHL player in his own zone is kind of incredible, if you really think about it. Now, he does have the edge in goals-for, as well as in assists. And in other ways the differences between them are marginal. But this should be instructive.

In the three seasons examined, MacDonald earned his teams a “goals above replacement defender” rating of minus-14.23. That is to say, he cost them more than 14 goals than what the average AHL call-up would have if assigned similar circumstances by his coach. Not counting this year (GAR stats aren't yet available for 2015-16), Russell's previous three seasons saw him cost his team 13.52 goals versus what a call-up would have.

Your age-24 to age-27 seasons are meant to be his prime years, and this is what he produced? And he wants $5.5 million for that?

Actually, the age thing is very much worth noting. MacDonald was a month into being a 28-year-old when his new contract started and things spiraled out of control quite quickly. Russell will be almost 29-and-a-half. That's a non-negligible difference, especially for a defenseman who relies as much upon physicality and the ability (and/or willingness) to jump in front of opponents' shots as the big selling point in his game. That leads to a lot of wear and tear, and if you're re-upping him until he's in his mid-30s, you have to think hard about what a guy this ineffective looks like with three, four, five more years of blocked shots and hits given and received added to his career total.

Finally, over the last three years, it's important to see where Russell, who wants to be one of the 25 or 30 highest-paid defenders in the league, ranks among defenders in most of the categories listed above. So I looked at all the defensemen who played at least 3,500 minutes at 5-on-5 in the last three seasons — Russell himself entered last night's game against San Jose with more than 3,800 — to see where he ranked. Only 46 defenders reached that level prior to last night's games, so these are the elites of the elites in terms of how much they're used. Basically all the No. 1 D and half the No. 2s in the league.

It was very, very not-pretty.

In terms of per-60 stats: Dead last in high-quality chances generated and high-quality chances allowed. He was third from the bottom in shot attempts generated (ahead of only Jonas Brodin and Andy Greene, both of whom play for defensive-minded teams), and dead last in shot attempts allowed. Second-last in shots on goal for (ahead of Greene), last in shots on goal against. And in terms of actual goals, 13th-most(!) scored, but third-most allowed (only ahead of Jack Johnson and Justin Faulk).

He was also dead last in all percentages except goals-for, in which he was ninth-worst.

Is any of this to say that Russell couldn't play better in a greatly reduced role? No. If he were simply a No. 6/7 defenseman on a good team, instead of a No. 3 on a very bad one, I think he could probably be useful. Deploy him as a shot-blocking penalty killer on a night when you think you're going to get shelled anyway, and he might be worth something to you.

But he not only sees himself as a legitimate player in the latter role, but beyond that. He wants $5.5 million or more. For five years or more. And according to McKenzie, other teams apparently see him that way as well. That's great news for him in terms of dollars and cents, but if he finds himself getting MacDonald-ed down to the minors in another year or two, that's not so good professionally.

This is the ultimate caveat emptor. If you pay more than even $2 million for Russell you're probably getting very badly ripped off. The fact that Calgary could probably call someone up from Stockton right now and have that player be a better contributor tells you a lot about Russell's actual quality.

I've said it a million times but shot-blocking — Russell's stated calling card — isn't a particularly great skill. It's useful only if you're not the one causing the problem (own-zone time) that leads to the need for shot-blocking in the first place. It's better than the alternative, of Russell being both terrible at keeping the puck away from the other team and unable to block the shots attempts he allows, but not by much.

If he signs this contract or anything resembling it, he will quite simply never live up to expectations. I can state that with certainty because if there were some other hockey player hidden in Kris Russell's skill set, he has never shown up in Russell's 10-year career, much of which has likely been extended by the league-wide bias toward players who “play the game” the way he does.

Certainly, his is not a skill worth anywhere close to $5.5 million annually, as anyone who signs him to such a deal will quickly find out. Fortunately for Kris Russell, there are still a lot of suckers out there.

Every fan in the league should really hope his or her team's GM is not one of them.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.