Kris Russell (Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Calgary defenseman Kris Russell has become the NHL’s shot-blocking king, being the fearless leader on a Flames team that relied on any means necessary to win games. Blocking blistering slapshots isn’t easy and Russell explained the art behind stepping in front of a heavy shot.
By Rachel Villari
The art of blocking shots depends on many different factors, but when the time comes to go down and make the sacrifice, Kris Russell implores one thing is a constant: a sense of fearlessness.
Russell, 28, has risen from a surplus D-man to a second-pairing bat out of hell since he was traded from the Blues in 2013. In two years with the Flames, he has potted 11 goals and 63 points and blocked 484 shots. Of those, 283 came in 2014-15, a new league record. On average last season, he laid out to prevent 3.58 shots a night.
Maybe ignoring the “flight” half of the fight-or-flight instinct is in his blood: Russell’s father, Doug, was a national rodeo bullfighter in his day. Or maybe his unwavering disposition is a contagion that, instead of wiping out the dressing room, invigorates it. “A lot of guys are willing and sacrificing for blocked shots,” Russell said. “That was part of the reason that we were more successful than a lot of people imagined we would be last year. We had guys laying down and blocking shots, guys like Lance Bouma. He’ll lay in front of anything. That’s the fearlessness that’s contagious.”
Like many hockey players, Russell is quick to deflect attention, much like he is to jump in a lane and deflect a puck. The humble defenseman says there’s an art to shot blocking, but it’s hard to pinpoint. “It’s tough to describe because there are so many situations where you’d block a shot,” he says.
Things to keep in mind include: “how far the player’s away from you, if you can use your stick or not, and where you’re positioned. But at the same time, it’s just a read because there’s a lot of good players that if you go down too early they’ll go right around you. You kind of want to force them into a shot and then take the lane away as quick as you can.”
Oh, and only block shots – not your goalie’s point of view. “That’s the one thing you don’t want to do, is sacrifice and then not block that shot and your goalie can’t see it and it’s in the back of your net,” Russell cautioned. “Our goalies do a good job of letting us know if they want to see the shot or if they can’t see it. The more vocal they are the easier it is for us defensemen.”
Shot blocking as a tactic ranges between offense and defense, too. While the D-men might have to block those big blueline shots from the Shea Webers and the P.K. Subbans of the league, the fearless Russell contends that it’s not as bad as it may look. “There’s a lot of guys in the league you don’t want to take shots from,” he said. “But those big shots – especially the ones on the point – you’ve typically got a little more time to react.”
Despite wearing gear that resembles suits of armor, Russell says he’ll still turn a bit black and blue. “If you get hit right where it’s protected you’re pretty good. But some of the guys shoot so heavy you’re going to have little bumps and bruises through your padding.”
The worst – we won’t say scariest – shot he remembers blocking was an infamous Weber one-timer a few years back. “It just blew my kneepad into two pieces,” he said. “But that one was lucky because it was a new shin pad. If it had been an older one it might’ve stung, but thankfully it was new enough that it still had some stability and it broke. He’s got a heavy shot, those are tough ones to block.”