Deft-moving Russell finding his way for Flames with smart positioning, quick feet
Defenceman filling the void left by the injured Mark Giordano admirably
St. Louis, Mo. — Back in the day, way back in his junior days, Kris Russell was an offensive defenceman.
A smooth skater but always a bit undersized, the 26-year-old Caroline, Alta., native made up for it by being smart and understanding what he needed to do differently to be effective.
“Body-positioning,” Russell was explaining on Wednesday, following the Calgary Flames afternoon skate at the Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis. “Using your stick well, you’ve gotta be smart. You’re not going to overpower a lot of guys in this league so you get your body in front of them and make it harder for them to go around. Especially in today’s rules, you can’t clutch and grab which makes it easier for a guy like myself to play in the league.
“Just simplify games. Smart, quick decisions and try to use my feet as best I can.”
Which worked out for him just fine with the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers as he scored 196 points in 171 games during his four seasons with the club.
The thing in the National Hockey League, as he quickly found out when he was toiling with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the first five seasons of his career, offensive flair is harder than it looks to translate.
“As a junior, I was thinking if a young guy has success, I thought I was going to come in and score a lot of points, score a lot of goals,” Russell said. “I was an offensive guy in junior. It didn’t transfer over quite the way I thought it would.
“But I feel like it’s coming a little bit. When you focus in your own zone, making plays and smart decisions defensively, I feel like offence comes and it’s easier to have a transition game.”
To look at him now — 15 games in with the Calgary Flames, the third NHL club on his resume — the offence has arrived.
With two goals, six assists, and a plus-three rating, Russell is logging important minutes along with a similarly-minded defence partner Dennis Wideman. Because of the absence of injured captain Mark Giordano, the pair are on the ice a lot and can function so well because of their coverage and skating ability. When one pinches, the other stays back. Both like to shoot the puck (Wideman leads the team with 44 shots while Russell is the fifth-most prolific shooter with 29 behind Curtis Glencross). Both are used liberally on the power play.
And for the Flames, signing the five-foot-10, 173-pounder this off-season, is looking like a genius move at this point.
“He skates, he reads the play very well. He competes,” said Flames head coach Bob Hartley. “That’s what I’m asking everyone on this team, to compete and empty their pockets every game. That’s what he does. It’s not only on a game-to-game basis. You see in practice, you see in the gym. He’s a very proud athlete. For me, he’s a very pleasant surprise.”
Originally a third-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2005, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 10, 2011, and started playing top-six minutes.
Gradually, though, Russell slid down the depth chart. Last season in 33 games, he was a plus-six with one scrap and collected seven points while averaging 16 minutes of ice time per night.
At one point, the Blues considered moving him up to left wing and made him a qualifying offer of $1.3 million in the off-season. The writing was also on the wall when the club said they were not committed to Russell as one of the Blues’ top-seven defencemen, which included the newly acquired Jay Bouwmeester, Jordan Leopold and Alex Pietrangelo.
As a restricted free-agent, Russell was placed on waivers and went unclaimed until Calgary shipped a 2014 fifth-round pick to acquire the Alberta native.
And, now, returning to the Scottrade Center for the first time, he is a main cog in the Flames’ defensive corps.
“Since Day 1 of camp, I can say he’s a surprise anymore because . . . he’s put the chances on his side to be successful,” Hartley said. “Here’s a guy who’s a 166-pound, wet-to-the-bone defenceman. And he’s playing like he’s six-three. He hits. He blocks shots. He joins the play. He quarterbacks our power play with Wides. I can’t ask any more of this guy. He gives everything he’s got every day.”
Occasionally, Russell says he catches himself forcing plays — which is what he used to do when he was younger — and is hard on himself after a loss, for example Tuesday’s 5-1 drubbing by the Minnesota Wild.
“The last one was a tough game,” he said. “I wasn’t very happy with the way I played, but lately it’s been very good. Just have to watch some video and clean up some stuff and keep trying to work hard and build good minutes. Not get too complicated and make sure I move my feet and hope it continues.”
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