Jason Demers and Kris Russell Have to be Better for Dallas in Order to Win Game 7
Kris Russell and Jason Demers have struggled in this series against the St. Louis Blues. With Game 7 coming up tonight, they're gonna have to be a lot better if Dallas intends to optimize their chances of winning.
When Jim Nill traded for Kris Russell, the idea was that Dallas no longer had to turn to their rookies. After all, Dallas was and is in win now mode. They're about to begin Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Sure the trade for Russell was and always will be an overpayment, but that can be the price of safety. In this case, the safety of blueline depth with more experience to boot.
Except the depth and experience are struggling. More so than the youth and inexperience (Johns and Klingberg). So far Demers and Russell are the statistical bottom rung. They clock in at a Corsi For percentage of 48 Percent each. Their expected goals against per 60 minutes of play (2.47 for Russell, 2.4 for Demers) is the worst among Dallas defensemen, which emphasizes a problem of allowing quality as well as quantity.
Especially in this series against the Blues. Throughout the first six games of the series with the Blues Demers and Russell have a shot attempt differential of 43 Percent. They were pummeled in Game 6 in a way the entire team helped contribute to, but Games 1 and 2 were tilted in Dallas' favor where they struggled mightily too.
Sean Tierney, using data collected from Dimitri Filipovic on zone exits, reveals that they're a mixed bag of heavy baggage when it comes to exiting the zone. Russell attempts to exit the zone with possession of the puck at an above average rate but succeeds at a below average rate. Demers attempts to exit the zone with possession of the puck at a below average rate and succeeds at a below average rate. In other words, the worst parts of the Bible.
Part of this stems from their transition speed. Here's Patrik Berglund with the puck near his own bench. He's got Jori Lehtera in front of him straight down the esophagus (David Backed isn't an option, as he goes for a change). Demers and Russell are in decent position. If anything this is part bad line change, part mistake on the Fak 'Em line who need to keep the forwards from entering the zone with speed. But they're still fundamentally in good position with two forwards well in front of them.
Berglund decides to enter the zone himself. This is where the duo's transition speed gets exposed. Whenever coaches, analyists, talking heads, or just keyboard warriors like me use the phrase "gap control", it's a reference to how much distance should be between the player with possession of the puck and the player without. The ideal distance between both players is a little more than a stick's length. Too close, and the player can beat the body. Too far, and the player can beat the stick.
Russell is playing a decent but not great gap. But that's not the problem. The problem is that the general rule for players entering near the boards is to pressure them into the boards. This doesn't mean taking the body. It means forcing them to either turn it over, or chip it in. Anything else allows players to use the middle of the ice. Which is exactly what ensues.
Berglund moves laterally to cut through the middle in the high slot. Meanwhile, Lehtera goes straight to the net, cutting through both defenders. Berglund shoots, Kari coughs up the puck, and Lehtera inexplicably gets a quality rebound on Kari with Demers somehow behind him. Within seconds Demers and Russell have gone from having two forwards in front of them to having one get a shot off with the other in alone on the rebound attempt.
Now, this is just one example. But after Game 6 in which Demers and Russell went beyond the -20 mark in shot attempt differential, believe me, I found plenty more.
The instinct for many fans, and maybe even Ruff is to bring in one or two of Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth, or Jamie Oleksiak. Except the issue there is that they haven't played. Asking them to come in for Game 7 would be a tall task, and one that may be more dangerous than sticking with a pair that has done okay in the playoffs. In fact, the pair was positive in possession in the Minnesota series. And they were good in the regular season.
The other option is to shuffle the defensive pairs. I see this mentioned a lot. Especially in relation to Klingberg and Goligoski. Except Goose is 3rd among all active skaters in the playoffs in shot attempt differential (59 Percent). Klingberg is 6th (57 Percent). And everyone seems pretty cool with Oduya and Johns doing their stay at home, don't spill the milk thing. In addition, Klingberg and Oduya have been tried: they weren't good for the 44 minutes they spent together.
It's not gonna get any easier for Demers and Russell. This is sudden death for a St. Louis team that will be trying to prove a point about their playoff success, or lackthereof. They're sick of the narrative that they can't get it done. Dallas should be sick of the narrative that their style can't win in the playoffs. It can, and they've shown as much. Even without Tyler Seguin. But if they win this series they're not gonna just need their best players to be their best players. They're gonna need their good players to play like their best players too. And that means Demers and Russell must step up.