It was a virtual certainty that the Calgary Flames were going to trade defenceman Kris Russell prior to the 2016 NHL trade deadline. The playoffs were out of sight, Russell was on an expiring deal and there really weren’t a lot of other defensive rental options out there.
The trade was expected. The high price the Dallas Stars were willing to pay was not.
Before we get to the richness of that return package, we need to spend some time on Russell to explain why the collection of assets the Stars parted with represented an overpayment as well as the reasons why Dallas should not have prioritized him in its search for defensive help.
Maybe the best way to highlight Russell’s problems is to look at the defencemen he played with this season. There’s been injury and upheaval on Calgary’s blue line, so the coaching staff has tried a lot of different pairings. In all, Russell has played at least an hour at five-on-five with four different partners.
That’s helpful, because we can scroll through the quartet and see how each player has done with and without Russell. Our chosen metric is Corsi, basically a plus/minus for all the shot attempts tried by either team with a player on the ice. On the average team, 50 percent is break-even, with higher representing more time in the opposition zone and all regular NHL defencemen falling between 40 and 60 percent on the scale.
Here’s how Russell’s partners have fared:
Russell has played with four different partners. In each and every case, the Flames did a better job of outshooting the opposition when that partner played with someone else. This is true even with bottom-pair guys like Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman, who mostly played with other bottom-pair guys.
It’s worth noting that one of Russell’s skills is blocking shots. He’s really good at it. Corsi includes blocked shots, and when we take those out of the equation (with a statistic known as Fenwick), Russell’s numbers improve. The Flames go from having a 44.1 percent share of shot attempts up to 45.5 percent when he’s on the ice. Unfortunately, both figures still rank him last among regular Calgary defencemen.
There are caveats that can and should be considered. Shot-blocking is one of them. Another is that Russell is a pretty decent offensive defenceman most years, though he’s having a bad run this season.
Perhaps most importantly, Russell has not always been a shot-differential drain. He had good seasons in Columbus and good seasons in St. Louis, seasons where his team did a better job of controlling the shot clock with him on the ice than it did with him on the bench. That’s telling, and it suggests that his territorial issues with the Flames may not transfer to another team.
The problem is that he’s a gamble. When a team gets outshot as badly as Calgary has been with Russell on the ice, it’s a sign of a real problem. The Flames, not an analytically inclined organization, seemed not to care and played Russell like a top-four defenceman. A team acquiring him, though, would do well to take his struggles into consideration and slot him in lower on its depth chart.
The trouble is that the price Dallas paid is more like what one would expect to see in trade for a bona fide top-four defenceman with no red flags.
First there’s the pick. That conditional second-rounder could end up being more, as detailed by the Flames’ official website:
Condition: In the event Dallas advance to the 2016 Western Conference Final in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, and Russell dresses in 50% of the games in the first two (2) rounds, the draft choice shall become Dallas’ first round choice in the 2016 NHL Draft.
The Stars are a good team, and those conditions could plausibly be met. Not a lot of players at the deadline were drawing first-round draft picks in trade. Even the return for former Carolina captain Eric Staal topped out in the second round, as per NHL.com’s Jon Lane.
Defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka was also included in the trade. The 6’3”, 215-pound defenceman is still finding his way in the league, but he’s only 24 years old and is under contract next year at the low price of just $900,000. At worst, he’s an inexpensive depth option, and he’s young enough that he could be more than that.
Brett Pollock rounds out the return for Calgary. Here in part is how International Scouting Services described him in its 2014 draft guide:
Pollock has good size with a ton of room left to build on his frame. He is a strong and smooth skater who always seems to have his feet in motion and because of this seems to dictate the pace of play from shift to shift. He has good hands and knows how to score when given the chance. He thinks the game effectively offensively but needs to tighten up his 200 foot game and play towards his own net with the same gusto he does on offense.
It’s easy to understand why the Stars moved Pollock, whose scoring has progressed only modestly in the two years since he was selected. After tallying 55 points in 71 games in his draft year (2013-14), he has 67 points in 63 games this season; for a forward with top-six potential, that’s a disappointingly low increase over that span. He’s still a prospect of interest, however.
In balance, it’s hard to see the Stars as getting good value. They added a player in Russell who may fit into their top four but who, based on recent performance, is probably better suited to a third-pair role. In order to add him, Dallas surrendered a high pick (possibly a first-rounder), a cheap young defender and middling prospect.
It is not a "storm the Bastille" sort of trade. It just doesn’t look like an efficient use of assets.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.