Even though Kris Russell was Columbus’ third round pick in 2005, by the time he reached the NHL two years later he was being marked as the elusive puck-moving defender the franchise had struggled to find in its infancy. Expectations were inflated from his strong stats in the Western League with Medicine Hat and promising back-to-back gold medal showings with Canada at the World Junior Championship.
Fans were willing to cut the youngster some slack in his first year at the age of 20, but it didn’t take long for them to give up on him completely. Take one look at the message board reaction following his trade to the St. Louis Blues and you’ll see where he stood in the eyes of some fans.
“Losing Russell – Good. He is at best a #6 dman, most nights he’s a #7 or AHL’r.”
“I would have been happy with a number 1 combo from Wendy’s in return.”
Not all Columbus fans felt the same way, but for the most part Russell frustrated and failed to convince the commoners he belonged on the struggling team. He hadn’t reached the status of reliable, point-producing puck-mover and with James Wisniewski and Grant Clitsome in the picture, the Blue Jackets were ready to move on.
Whether or not that ends up being the best choice for a team that has to seriously consider its future at every turn remains to be seen.
One thing is clear, though: Legendary coach Ken Hitchcock likes Russell’s game, so there has to be something the fair-weathers missed.
“I’m not one of these guys who falls in love with points with younger players,” Hitchcock said. “One thing about defensemen is anybody who has any upside offensively doesn’t realize that until later in their careers where everything calms down – I’m talking 27 and above.”
Hitchcock was hired as Blues coach Nov. 7 and his new team acquired Russell in exchange for Nikita Nikitin four days later. Coincidence? The civil war buff didn’t organize the trade, but he certainly had a hand in it.
“They said ‘well, we have an opportunity to trade for Kris’ and I said ‘I don’t know Nikitin at all, but I know Russ,’ ” Hitchcock said. “I gave them my thoughts on Kris and they made the deal.”
Russell, 5-foot-10 and 172-pounds with an eye on offense, is hardly the type of player you’d think would go hand-in-hand with the defensive leanings of Hitchcock. What Hitchcock likes about Russell, though, goes well beyond what you can extract from the stats page.
“I’ve always felt he could leg you out of a lot of trouble in a lot of areas and I think that’s what we’ve tried to focus on here,” Hitchcock said. “He can help by himself becoming the breakout. He can put pressure on people off the rush by using his legs – his legs have been his best asset. There aren’t many defensemen who can carry the puck out of trouble for you and that’s what we’re trying to get him to do here.”
While Hitchcock said he has a comfortable bond with Russell due to the fact the two worked together in Columbus for three years and were let go by the same organization, he’s encouraged assistant coach Brad Shaw to develop a relationship with him. Shaw and Russell have been charged with working on the transition aspect of the defenseman’s game and Hitchcock, by design, has stayed out of the mix.
“We’ve watched a couple defensemen closely in our division who are similar styles and we’re getting Kris to change from being an inside-out player to an outside-in player,” Hitchcock said. “We want him to transition the puck more through the middle of the ice than on the outside of the ice.
“I’m looking at him from a month down the road. I’ve told Brad and Kris this is where I want to see you and let them work it out.”
Russell had three points in his first five games with St. Louis, but only one in the following six games. And even though Nikitin has eight points in 11 games with Columbus, that’s hardly a reason to immediately question the deal from either side.
So much fan focus is on the here and now, but those cocksure, in-the-moment proclamations are mostly misguided, especially when you’re talking about players who are still so young. Perhaps it’s because of the Drew Doughtys and Cam Fowlers of the world who have set the bar unreasonably high. Reality isn’t always that exciting.
The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, immediate-gratification mentality is an easy trap, but it often leads to regret.
Kind of like that No. 1 combo from Wendy’s.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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