Russell finds niche as premiere shot-blocker

Among the reasons for the Calgary Flames’ resurgence this season is the team’s willingness to put their bodies in front of flying pucks. Led by defenceman Kris Russell, the Flames top the NHL in blocked shots this season with 957, ahead of Buffalo’s 950. Calgary boasts four defenceman in the top 15, which is more players than any other team.

CALGARY — Among the reasons for the Calgary Flames’ resurgence this season is the team’s willingness to put their bodies in front of flying pucks.

Led by defenceman Kris Russell, the Flames top the NHL in blocked shots this season with 957, ahead of Buffalo’s 950.

Calgary boasts four defenceman in the top 15, which is more players than any other team.

Russell, from Caroline, is far and away the league leader with 164 in 50 games as of Thursday.

He’s on pace for a career-high season.

Buffalo’s Josh Gorges was second with 139, while Russell’s teammates Dennis Wideman (120), captain Mark Giordano (111) and T.J. Brodie (110) ranked sixth, 11th and 13th respectively.

“When you’re playing, you don’t count how many you block,” Russell said.

“It’s something we have to do and keep doing to get wins. I think that’s why we’ve been successful defensively is we have guys willing to do that.”

Calgary’s average of 27.7 shots-against per game ranked seventh in the league Thursday.

The Flames (29-20-3) take a three-game winning streak into Friday’s home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Russell scored his first goal of the season Wednesday in a 3-1 win over San Jose and blocked three shots. The five-foot-10, 173-pound blue-liner posted a season-high nine blocked shots in Monday’s 5-2 win over Winnipeg.

“Some games it feels like you’re always out of position and you can’t seem to find that lane,” Russell said. “I felt I was in good position and got my stick on a few pucks as well.”

The willingness and ability of Calgary forwards and defencemen to limit shots on net took a significant step forward under head coach Bob Hartley.

The Flames ranked second to Montreal last season and fourth in the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13. The latter was Hartley’s first behind Calgary’s bench.

Russell finished third in the NHL in blocked shots last season with 201 behind Philadelphia’s Andrew MacDonald (242) and then-Flames teammate Chris Butler (211).

Fleet of foot with puck-moving skills, Russell was the Western Hockey League’s player of the year in 2007 when he scored 32 goals in 59 games for the Medicine Hat Tigers. He and Jonathan Toews led Canada in scoring with four goals apiece en route to world junior gold that year.

A third-round pick of the Columbus in 2005, the Blue Jackets dealt him to the St. Louis Blues for defenceman Nikita Nikitin in November, 2011. The Flames acquired Russell’s rights for a fifth-round pick and signed him to a one-year deal in the summer of 2013.

Ironically, it was Calgary trading Jay Bouwmeester to the Blues at the trade deadline that year that reduced Russell’s ice time in St. Louis. He was a restricted free agent when the Blues placed him on waivers.

Russell’s speed and agility fits Calgary’s game of generating offensive pressure from the back end. He’s carved a new niche for himself with his shot-blocking capabilities.

Russell signed a two-year contract extension last August valued at $2.6 million per season.

“In St. Louis, it was probably hard to find a spot on the blue-line and at the same time over here, we had some openings and Kris stepped in and was ready,” Hartley said. “It’s all about being in the right spot at the right time. For Kris Russell, and for us, the timing was great.

“He’s earned our trust fully. He’s a great skater, can move the pucks defensively, reads plays well and sacrifices his body even though he’s a small defenceman. He plays way bigger than his size.”

While shot-blocking is a stat the Flames take pride in, Russell says there’s a flipside to it.

“I think you want to be more of a puck possession team,” he explained. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword.

“You’re willing to block the shots, but at the same time if you have puck possession, you’re not going to be put in those positions.”

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