After 901 games and 2,024 blocked shots, Kris Russell has a well-earned reputation as someone who plays hard, plays hurt and is always there for his team.
So, trust him when he tells you being forced into a spectator role is some of the worst pain he’s ever felt in the game.
“Blocked shots and bruises, played through some broken bones, but this was something that wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse,” said the Edmonton Oilers defenceman, who is back from a nagging neck issue that had him sidelined since Jan. 31.
“I had to make sure I got it fixed. I had the doctors tell me that it got to the point where, basically, I shouldn’t be playing. I had to get back to getting healthy again.
“It’s always frustrating. I feel like I’m one of those guys who can play through some stuff, so when you can’t, it feels like you’re letting the team down.”
It’s been that kind of year for the 34-year-old, who missed 29 of the last 35 games with injury issues and has been limited to just 21 games this season.
“There are times when I’ve played good and felt good and (the neck) would kind of go on me a little bit, some things weren’t feeling too good. Whenever you’re not playing, whether you’re scratched or you’re hurt, it’s frustrating.”
Russell doesn’t feel like his body is starting to give out on him, though. Rather, he believes it was just an unfortunate injury in a bad spot but there are plenty of games left to salvage something good from this season — and not having a full schedule’s worth of abuse on his body leaves him in a good position to do that.
“I feel confident in my game and that I can play at this level,” he said. “Right now, I feel good. I feel really healthy. To be honest, I haven’t been this healthy at this time of year in a lot of years. I’m looking at it as a positive.”
The last time he played for the Oilers, Dave Tippett was behind the bench coach, so Russell will have to introduce his game to a new coaching staff that has a lot of options on defence, and potentially more on the way at the trade deadline.
“I think everyone knows in this room what kind of game I’m trying to bring,” he said. “Play simple, limit their chances. At the same time, I have to prove myself to our coaching staff.
“It’s part of the season where you have to win, so I want to be a part of that. If I’m not, things will probably change.”
COMING AND GOING
With Russell and Jesse Puljujarvi back in the the mix, the Oilers sent defenceman Philip Broberg and winger Tyler Benson to Bakersfield, Calif., to free up the roster and cap space.
Broberg is making very solid strides in his rookie season in North America (27 games in Bakersfield, 22 in Edmonton) and they don’t want him sitting idle.
“He’s had a heck of a first year,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “He’s taken major steps along the way and his game is in a good place. In terms of my comfort level with Philip Broberg, I have a clear understanding of what he can do. He’s had a heck of a year, we just don’t want younger players not playing hockey games.”
BEATING THE DEADLINE
They aren’t deadline deals, but the Oilers bolstered their lineup in the last week or so, adding four skaters in the last four games — Russell, Puljujarvi, Josh Archibald and Zack Kassian — who’d been out for extended periods. They still have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to add at some point, too.
“It’s a challenge but it’s also an opportunity,” said Woodcroft. “It allows me to move some chess pieces around the board and learn about people’s capabilities. Any time you’re returning players to the lineup and getting healthy it’s a good thing. It creates competition for ice time.”
PLAYING WITH FIRE
Everyone knows Dylan Cozens has high-end skill, that’s why the Buffalo Sabres took him seventh overall in 2019, but his character and grit might be the most valuable weapons in his arsenal.
He impressed a lot of people around the NHL last weekend when he lit up Auston Matthews with a hard hit at centre ice after Matthews crosschecked Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin across the neck earlier in the Heritage Classic.
“He has an extremely high compete level, he’s feisty,” said Sabres coach Don Granato. “I love to see him respond. There is always a level of compete established in any game and he’s the type of guy who will set it. And if it’s already set, he identifies it and says, ‘I need to go higher.’”
Granato says the Whitehorse kid, who just turned 21, has the perfect blend of skill, drive and courage to become an impact player.
“He has dynamic, explosive speed and some pretty good power to him, whether it’s his shot or never shying away from a battle. Most young players would need time somewhere else to develop, but he has so many things going for him that he’s able to develop right here, right now.”
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On Twitter: @Rob_Tychkowski