Free agency opened 11 days ago, but defenseman Kris Russell, who was a hot commodity at the trade deadline, has yet to find himself a place to play in the upcoming campaign. However, there may be a new suitor throwing their hat in the ring for the free agent blueliner.
The Florida Sun Sentinel’s Harvey Fialkov reported Sunday that the Florida Panthers are “showing interest” in Russell, 29, who spent the past season with the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars.
As one of the top free agent defensemen remaining, Russell has likely positioned himself to land a deal with what could be a significant raise on the $2.6 million he earned during the 2015-16 campaign. That could make the chance Russell lands in Florida slim, though, even if the Cats are at the very least testing the waters on signing the rearguard.
Russell is coming off of a four-goal, 19-point season in 2015-16, which was actually a significant drop off in production from the 34- and 29-point campaigns he had posted in the two prior seasons.
That said, what appeals to some teams about Russell, for better or worse, isn’t his play with the puck, but his play without it. More specifically, teams seem to love Russell's shot-blocking acumen. Few players are as willing to lay in front of a blast as Russell is. For some teams, that willingness to block shots — especially on the penalty kill — is seen as incredibly valuable. But if Russell’s talent at blocking shots has him expecting a raise, it’s hard to imagine the Panthers are the landing spot for Russell given their cap situation and stable of defensemen.
Florida currently has seven defensemen locked up to contracts that could make them NHL regulars next season and less than $4.5 million in cap space for the upcoming campaign. The additions of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers to a D corps that already has Aaron Ekblad fills out the top three spots on the Panthers blueline. Paying Russell $3 million or more, which seems like what he could fetch on the open market, doesn’t seem like it would be a good fit financially for a blueliner who would probably sit fourth on the depth chart.
That’s even more true should the contract stretch beyond the 2016-17 campaign. There’s little-to-no chance that Jakub Kindl returns to the Panthers in 2017-18 as an unrestricted free agent, but Florida will still have to be wary of restricted free agent deals for Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic next season. That’s not to mention a $7.5 million cap hit for Eklbad that is set to kick in next season. Already, the Panthers have more than $60 million tied up in salary for 2017-18, and an extension for Huberdeau will definitely eat into what available cap space Florida does have.
Russell is likely looking for some sort of security in any deal he inks. He has already played for four organizations in his nine seasons in the NHL, and the longest he has been in one city came in the first four years of his career, all spent as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. That Russell hasn’t signed yet likely means he’s looking for the perfect fit in both term and dollars. Florida could be that fit, but it might not be a deal that looks good on the Panthers if they hand Russell a raise on a deal that stretches more than two seasons.
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