The Edmonton Oilers are keeping Kris Russell around for one more season after signing the veteran defenseman to a one-year contract extension on Wednesday afternoon.
Russell would have been an unrestricted free agent after this upcoming season, but will remain in Edmonton through the end of 2021-22 thanks to this deal.
It will pay him $1.25 million against the salary cap.
He is currently in the final year of a four-year, $16 million contract that he signed with the team prior to the 2017-18 season. He originally joined the Oilers on a one-year deal in 2016-17. His presence in Edmonton has always been polarizing due to the massive divide that exists between the “eye-test” hockey folks and the analytical side.
The former views Russell as a tough, strong defensive presence that brings leadership to the team’s locker room.
The latter sees a flawed player that was making a significant salary while only providing what is probably third-pairing value on the ice. When you add in the context of his arrival in Edmonton and everything that went alongside it (specifically the trades of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle) and it has been low-hanging fruit for Oilers critics.
There is an element of truth to both sides. He is not a bad defensive player at all, but he provides very little offensive support and was definitely a bit of a drain on the team’s salary cap situation on that previous deal. That will obviously not be the case on this deal.
What Edmonton’s defense looks like now
Before signing Russell to this extension the Oilers only had three NHL defenders under contract for the 2021-22 season — Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Caleb Jones, with prospect Evan Bouchard (entry-level deal) likely working his way into that mix at some point.
Ethan Bear, currently a restricted free agent, will also be there after he signs a new contract this offseason.
That still presents a lot of question marks for the future as this position continues to be the Oilers’ biggest Achilles heel.
Klefbom is outstanding when healthy, but that has been a constant struggle for him. In his seven-year career he has played more than 66 games in a season just one time, has at times played at less than 100 percent, and could potentially miss the entire 2020-21 season. If that happens there is no telling what his career will look like one year later when he is finally able to return.
Bear and Jones had solid rookie campaigns this past season, but the jury is still very much out on them long-term, as is the case with Bouchard who has seven games of NHL experience under his belt.
They did add Tyson Barrie in free agency this offseason — a move that could make an already great power play even stronger — but it is only a one-year contract.
Adam Larsson is also an unrestricted free agent after this season.
The biggest issue remains the fact they do not have a bonafide No. 1 player at the position. They have an injured No. 2 (Klefbom), a few solid second-pairing players (Nurse, Bear), and a bunch of third-pairing players filling out the rest.
Bouchard certainly has the potential, but we are a long way from him filling that spot.
A mostly smart, decent offseason so far in Edmonton
There have been a few stumbles along the way.
Letting Andreas Athanasiou walk after giving up two second-round picks for him at the trade deadline makes the trade look quite dubious in hindsight. Not making any change to the goalie situation is also a significant risk, especially given how deep the free agent and trade market was this offseason.
But, overall, the offseason has been solid when it comes to the outside additions.
Russell is a flawed player, but a $1.25 million extension isn’t terrible, and while I do not think this should ever be the determining factor in signing someone (it has often times been used as a weak defense of a signing), it does give them another defender to leave exposed in next year’s expansion draft.
Beyond that, the additions of Kyle Turris and Barrie were very smart low-risk additions.
Turris’ tenure in Nashville was a flop, but he can still be a solid third-line center option behind the two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. For two years at less than $1.7 million per season he should be a strong fit.
Barrie may be miscast as a top-pairing player at this point, but for $3.5 million there is some big opportunity for him to have a monster year getting big minutes on the Oilers’ death star of a power play.
It is still a very top-heavy roster, but they have made some smart moves while avoiding the type of crippling mistakes that defined so many of their previous offseasons. That is progress.