Kris Russell has never received much appreciation in Oil Country. The veteran Edmonton Oilers defenseman has long had his share of detractors, who cited analytics and salary when arguing that he is a player the Oilers should divest themselves of.
His contract, a four-year, $16 million deal signed in 2017 and extended at 1.25 million for this season, wasn’t always easy to swallow. And his Corsi and Fenwick percentages have never been pretty. Heck, even scoring numbers — if one saw them as relevant — don’t provide a leg to stand on: the 34-year-old Russell hasn’t scored a goal since March 17, 2019.
However, there is one stat that has always reflected well upon Russell, and on Saturday (Nov. 26) night in Las Vegas, he had the spotlight.
Russell got in the way of a Max Pacioretty slapper in the first period of Edmonton’s 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, recording the 1,999 blocked shot of his career to overtake Brent Seabrook (1,998) as the all-time NHL leader. All told, he blocked six shots against Vegas on Saturday, and now has 2,003, becoming the first player in NHL history to surpass 2,000.
“We talked about it in the dressing room after the game,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said in his media availability following Edmonton’s win. “In the history of the game, there’s nobody that’s blocked more shots than that, and if everybody knew how much that hurts — like, there’s six blocks out of every 10 that sting you a little bit, and there’s four out of every 10 that really hurt. And you think a guy like that has done that 2,000 times, it’s incredible… It’s a credit to him, it’s a really amazing accomplishment, and our team was really happy for him tonight.”
Russell is a Shot-Blocking Machine
Russell, who is in his 15th NHL season and sixth with the Oilers, earned a reputation for throwing himself into the line of fire before many of his current teammates were even in the NHL. For six straight seasons, from 2013-14 to 2018-19, he finished top three in the league for blocked shots. He led the NHL in blocks three times, including 2014-15 as a member of the Calgary Flames. He set the all-time single-season record with 283 blocked shots.
He is Edmonton’s all-time blocked shots leader, with 824 in 317 games, having moved ahead of Ladislav Smid (789) late last season. Russell also has three of the five highest single-season block totals in Oilers history.
Russell Reinvinted His Game in the NHL
What makes Russell achieving a record that epitomizes defense so special is that fact that as a junior, the Red Deer, Alberta, product was the quintessential offensive defenseman in junior.
Russell, who played four seasons in the Western Hockey League, is the Medicine Hat Tigers’ career leader for goals by a defenseman (76) and second all-time among blueliners in points (196). He also holds the Tigers’ single-season record for goals, scoring 32 in only 59 games in 2006-07, and has second spot on that list too, with 26 goals in 2004-05.
It was in 2005 that he was selected in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft, 67th overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets. At the time, Tippett was head coach of the Dallas Stars.
“I remember when we were in Dallas, we were talking about drafting him as a defenseman, he was an offensive defenseman,” Tippett recalled with a smile Saturday. “Somewhere along the way he figured out he better stop some pucks.”
Putting Blocked Shots in Context
The NHL only began officially tracking blocked shots in 2005-06, two seasons before Russell entered the league. Because of this limited data range, his record carries an asterisk that critics can rightly point to.
Let’s suppose, then, that he’s not the greatest shot blocker in hockey history; he’s still measurably the best of the salary cap era. And he’s in good company: Seabrook is an All-Star, Olympic gold-medalist, and three-time Stanley Cup champion; and the second-place all-time shot blocker among active players, Duncan Keith (1,925), is a lock to one day enter the Hockey Hall of Fame.
If there is any questioning the value in blocked shots, just ask Mikko Koskinen. The Oilers netminder has watched “Rusty” block nine shots in front of him over Edmonton’s last two games, both wins.
“He’s always putting (the) team first, and he’s doing that every night, night after night,” the Finish goalie said during his postgame availability in Vegas. “You always know when you put Rusty out there what you’re going to get. (He’s) a great player to have on the team and I’m so happy for him.”
On an occasion when even the most derisive armchair quarterbacks must tip their hat to Russell, it’s fitting he gets the spotlight for making the most unselfish play: what literally takes his legs out from him is the figurative leg he has to stand on.
Russell will continue to sacrifice for the team, laying down in front of blistering biscuit after blistering biscuit without regard for his own body. If there’s one thing Edmonton can count on Russell for so long as he can strap the pads around his bruised shins, it’s blocking shots. If he happens to score a couple goals, well, that would be nice, too.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.