The bizarre free agency saga of Kris Russell

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Kris Russell is a player hockey people love to argue about.

Over the past year he has become one of the players in the NHL whose value and ability will forever and always be the subject of a shouting match between the objective analytical observers of the sport, and those that put their faith in the subjective eye-test. Those two sides have had plenty of opportunities to voice their differing opinions over the past few months.

His poor possession numbers make him a wildly unpopular player from an analytics point of view, but his fearlessness as a shot-blocker and reputation as a defensive minded player seemed to significantly boost his value leading up to the trade deadline when he was eventually traded by the Calgary Flames to the Dallas Stars.

Heading into free agency in what was a pretty thin crop of players, he seemed to be somebody that was going to get a fairly decent sized contract very early in the signing period (the Colorado Avalanche seemed like a safe bet). Depending on which side of the “how good is Kris Russell” argument you fall on, that was either going to be a very good or very bad thing for the team that ended up with him. In past free agent signing seasons he probably would have been the type of player that would have received a massive contract on the first day.

Then something weird happened: Nobody ended up signing Kris Russell. We are now a week into September, training camps on just around the corner, and Russell still remains unsigned.

If a player remains unsigned this long into the offseason, to the point where it almost stretches into the next season, it is almost always a sign that nobody wants to guarantee that player a roster spot and they have to earn their way onto a roster through a tryout contract.

The bizarre thing about that is it does not necessarily seem to be the case with Russell. There always seem to be reports surfacing that he is, in fact, still very much in demand and that teams — many teams! — still want to sign him.

Very early in the free agent signing period there was a report that he turned down a four-year, $17 million contract from Toronto (a contract that would have been panned by the analytics side), a report that was later dismissed by his agent.

In early August, more than a month after the free agent signing period began, it was reported that Russell and his camp were waiting for a few mystery teams to clear money under the salary cap in order to fit his contract in their lineup.

Then things went quiet for another month until Tuesday when TSN’s Darren Dreger briefly mentioned on Twitter that Russell was believed to be in “serious” discussions with as many as eight mystery teams and is expected to sign with somebody before training camps begin.

It all leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

If there is that much demand in his services, why has it taken this long to find a spot?

The salary cap issue could be a legitimate one, especially if his intent is to join a contender, many of whom are pressed up against the cap. But there are also currently 14 teams (including some very good ones) that have more than $4 million in salary cap space for this upcoming season. There are 19 with more than $3 million in cap space at the moment. Russell’s 2015-16 salary was $2.6 million.

Plus, the salary cap is a decade old thing in the NHL, and there has almost never been a player that was apparently in this much demand that had to wait this long for teams to create the necessary space to add them in free agency. If a team wants a player that badly, they find a way.

Is Russell simply in a situation where he has several teams to choose from and the process is taking longer than normal? Or is this the work of an agent attempting to drum up interest in a player that maybe isn’t in as much demand as he was expected to be?

With NHL front offices starting to put a greater emphasis on analytics when it comes to piecing together a team there does seem to have been a shift over the past two years, at least a little bit, in which players get the big money free agent deals and which ones don’t, and that can absolutely hurt a player like Russell. But even with that being the case teams still obviously place a pretty significant value on the elements he can bring to a lineup.

Either way, no matter what you think of Russell and his ability, this is still a player that was expected this summer to have a contract in his hands within the first week (if not hours) of free agency.

And there is still reportedly a lot of interest in him as we get closer and closer to the start of the new season.

Yet he still remains unsigned.

None of it adds up and it all seems very bizarre.