This year's crop of rookies in the National Hockey League is impressive. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner, Bryan Little and Tyler Kennedy have made significant contributions to not only their respective teams, but also the fanbases.
Often overlooked (due to the market) is Blue Jackets defenseman Kris Russell. With the Medicine Hat Tigers, he was considered one of the most exciting players in the Western Hockey League and now is steadily coming around and playing increasingly well of late.
At 5'10", 170 pounds, Russell is a far cry from the prototypical size of an NHL blueliner. Does he care? Nope, and his play suggests even more minutes are coming.
Regarded as a future power play quarterback and puck-mover, Russell is being slowly worked into all facets of play by head coach Ken Hitchcock. Many were skeptical as to how Russell (being so offensively gifted) would fit into Hitchcock's defensively responsible, checking system.
So far, he is doing just fine. He is averaging just under 16:00 TOI per game, nearly equal to that of veterans Jason Chimera, Duvie Westcott and Manny Malhotra. He earns 3:46 of power play time per game- more than David Vyborny, Michael Peca, Jiri Novotny and Rostislav Klesla.
Russell is gaining experience in 5-on-5 situations, playing most nights against the opposing team's second and third lines.
His glaring strength is his positioning. The stick is almost always in the passing lanes, and he uses his body as if he were 200 pounds. With each game under his belt, he is getting more confidence to jump into the rush, something that the coaches and fans are clamoring for. When Kris Russell gets in on the rush, it's electric stuff.
Granted, he's yet to score a goal. But the kid has had numerous chances to get #1. Most have the feeling that once the first one goes in, it'll break the seal. Thus far, he is 3rd among the defense corps in shots on goal with 48.
However, when you watch this kid play, you can't help but marvel at his ability to recover. Like many young players, he has his fumbles and turnovers. Yet it's his remarkable speed coming back that makes him the first stick in the passing zones. He's been learning from Michael Peca the art of backchecking, and it seems to be growing on him. He has committed the 3rd least number of penalties on the team, with a stingy 4 PIM in 29 games.
Some fans have plead for management to let Russell play in Syracuse for a while, but it just won't happen. He is simply too skilled to keep out of the lineup. The Jackets are a faster, more intelligent transition team when he's on the ice. You can't say that for many 20-year olds in the NHL.
Kris Russell will eventually score his first goal, get his first multi-point game and his first star of the game award.
All that is speculative talk, because right now, this little guy is making big strides toward a fantastic career in the National Hockey League.