Kris Russell, the second most famous person from the village of Caroline, tipping his cowboy hat to another skater Kurt Browning, could make it to 1,000 NHL games, bruised body and all.
The 175-pound defenceman knows how to play only one way and will for the next two Edmonton Oiler seasons, unless the Seattle Kraken take the 33-year-old in the expansion draft in 2021.
That’s one of many reasons the Oilers signed Russell to a one-year extension for $1.25-million after this upcoming season, to meet the criteria for an available player.
Expansion? Whatever, for the small third-round pick who’s played 846 NHL games.
“There’s a possibility I get picked (expansion) but I’m not worrying about it. If you get picked then that team wants you right? But I signed this deal to be an Edmonton Oiler and I’m proud of it,” said Russell. “I just want to be trusted to play regular minutes, whatever role, and be on a winning team.”
He’s a polarizing player with analytics people because they feel he spends too much time in his end and doesn’t put up points. Knockers feel he’s made too much money if he’s going to be a third-pairing D, overlooking the fact he plays left or right side with no complaint. Also how respected he is by his teammates and the coaches.
That was hammered home a few years ago when an angry Milan Lucic chased a Tampa youngster Mathieu Joseph around the ice on the road before jumping on him.
“Rusty (Russell) took a cheap shot from the guy … I’m not putting up with that, none of us are, considering all the things he does for us,” said Lucic, who got fined by the league.
Russell could be a tutor for Evan Bouchard or Philip Broberg eventually or help newcomer Tyson Barrie as his partner. He’s fine with both, also realizing every Oiler D-man will have to up their game this season if Oscar Klefbom and his sore shoulder can’t go.
“If we don’t have him … I mean that’s huge. He’s a 1-2 (defenceman). Guys will have to step up,” said Russell, who would welcome the teacher job with a kid, if that’s the way it goes.
“I was pretty fortunate when I got to Columbus (drafted) … they put me beside Adam Foote in the dressing room and I really looked up to him and he took great care of me. It was situational with Footer, he could see if I was frustrated and wasn’t doing the things I needed to do. He was there for guidance to talk about the situations he’s been in. Also his words, how to be a good pro, that really stuck with me.”
He’s not concerned about kids nipping at his heels. Being a mentor? Fine with him.
“The Oilers have some good young guys coming up and that’s good for the organization. But every year I’ve been in the league I come to camp to play, and if that’s first pairing or last pairing or vying for the seventh spot, I’m trying to be the best I can be,” he said.
And Barrie coming in as a 29-year-old free-agent?
“I’ve seen him lots in Colorado and anytime you can add a player like that, especially on the right side, it’s going to be a big part of our team going forward. He’s dynamic, with great skating and puck-moving ability and obviously a threat on our power play,” said Russell, used to stop other teams on their man advantage, sacrificing his body.
He gets hurt at his size. This past season, he missed a month with concussion-type issues but it wasn’t his head.
“Nah, it was my neck,” said Russell, with Matt Benning, who just signed with Nashville, going through the same thing.
He steadfastly says he’s not concerned about his body breaking down at 175 pounds.
“If I was worried about that stuff I wouldn’t still be playing. I play the way I feel I have to to contribute to the team. I mean I’d like to put up 40 points, that would be great, but …”
Not going to happen as an NHLer, even though he was an offensive-driver as a defenceman in junior in Medicine Hat. “In my wildest dreams did I think I’d play like when I was a junior. Not a chance. If you’d asked me, I would have guaranteed I’d be an offensive guy the rest of my career,” he said.
But he’s not.
“With every team I’ve played for I’ve tried to figure a way to play more minutes. But there are (young) players who struggle and don’t want to change and they can’t be an NHL player because they’re set in their ways,” said Russell.
Russell figures the Oilers need to dig in too after losing to Chicago.
“We were embarrassed, and I take nothing away from the Blackhawks. That first game we lost, the most important game in a best-of-five, we weren’t ready. No excuses,” he said.
“We have to be better. Whether that’s changing the way we play or the way we think but we have to figure that out and I think we have the team that can do that. We’ve been stung so many times, it’s got to start to sink in.”
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