After a summer of change in Columbus that saw big-ticket names like Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski and Vinny Prospal join the team, it`s easy to expect increased team offensive numbers. One particular area where the Jackets expect (and require) increased production is from the blueliners.
Wisniewski was fifth in NHL defense scoring last season, putting up 10 goals, 41 assists for 51 points. He'll be the go-to weapon on defense for the Jackets, along with preseason scoring leader Fedor Tyutin. A good team needs more than two of their defensemen contributing to the offense however, and that's where Kris Russell should come in.
As we are about to embark on a new season, it's looking more and more like he isn't going to be that guy.
In 2007 Russell was named the top defenseman in the Canadian Hockey League. He was an offensive dynamo, scoring 69 points in 59 games as a member of the Medicine Hat Tigers in his final season of junior. The following season he joined the Jackets on a full-time basis, bypassing the AHL.
Given the offensive numbers he put up in junior, it was expected that Russell would be a producer at the NHL level-he would use his superior skating and puck-moving abilities to run the powerplay, and would be a threat five-on-five.
In his four full seasons as a Jacket, his offensive totals have gone from 10 points in his first season, to 21, then 22 and last season he finished with a career-high 23. While 23 points is decent contribution from a defender, a player with Russell's skill should be closer to the 40 point mark, like a Kevin Shattenkirk or Mark Giordano- who finished with 43 points each last season.
Many were expecting Russell to have his breakout season last year, but an early-season injury scuttled his season almost before it began. At mid-season the team called up Grant Clitsome from the AHL, and he was the shot in the arm to the powerplay that Russell couldn't provide. Meanwhile, prospect David Savard was having an outstanding rookie year in Springfield.
These factors take us to this summer. Clitsome is now a lock on the blueline. Savard has made the team out of camp. Marc Methot and Radek Martinek are the team's shutdown defensemen. Of course Tyutin and Wisniewski are the go-to players. Where does Russell fit in?
While we won't know for sure until October 7th when the Jackets open the season against Nashville, the guess here is that Russ will be in the lineup only due to Wisniewski`s suspension, otherwise he`s a healthy scratch. He hasn`t looked great in camp, with guys like Savard and Clitsome outshining him.
The eight games that Wisniewski is out is an audition of sorts for Russell. He should get second-unit powerplay time, and will likely be on the third pairing five-on-five. This is his chance to show that he can be a contributing factor in the offensive game. For an undersized player that uses speed and positioning rather than physical play, he needs to be putting up points to be relevant.
What Russell needs to do is outplay Savard. This is the easiest way to cement a position on the team. Savard is still on his entry-level contract, so he can be sent to Springfield without clearing waivers. The same can`t be said for Russell, who would be exposed if the team sent him down to the AHL. These two players are both offensive types, and the easiest decision when Wisniewski returns is to play whoever is performing best between Russell and Savard.
If it`s clear that the team is moving forward with Savard rather than Russell, the team could try to move Russell in a trade. He`s still young enough that a change of scenery could see an up-tick in production. A straight-up demotion to the AHL would be wasteful, as a team can pick him up for nothing in return. He`d be wasted as a healthy scratch.
The eight game suspension to Wisniewski is a blessing for Russell. He needs to take full advantage of the added playing time and show that he is a full-time contributor. If he can`t, a move to another team may not be far behind.