Robbie Russo Hits Free Agency

Robbie Russo was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders – but in their hurry to fill organizational needs on the blue line, they filled up roster spots that could have potentially been his by now. 

The 22 year old right shot blue liner, who comes from a town about an hour west of Chicago, is coming off his final season of NCAA play. He’s been a serviceable two-way defenseman for the entirety of his NCAA career, earning the captain’s C and refining his offensive game to give himself a bit of an edge to compensate for being a bit on the smaller side; knocks that involve a half-missed season for academic problems and a lack of stand-out ‘oomph’, though, make him expendable to the Islanders in the long run. 

Russo becomes a UFA on August 15th (that would be tomorrow) if the Islanders don’t sign him by tonight, which they’ve made pretty clear won’t happen – so could he fit in with any of the teams here at the Nations Network? 

Scouting Report

Pros: On the plus side, Russo has always been considered a good all-around player with decent possession skills, something that many of the NCAA’s most coveted offensive defensemen (hello, Justin Schultz, hello Joey LaLeggia) have struggled with in the past. As a result, the improved offensive play seen out of Russo in his final years of NCAA play – which saw him come in second to Mike Reilly in NCAA scoring among defensemen with 15 goals and 41 points in 40 regular season games last year – is only an added bonus. You’d hope he has the upside to be a player like Trevor van Riemsdyk is becoming with the Chicago Blackhawks. 

Had Matt Donovan not succeeded with the Islanders, Russo would maybe still have a spot open for him in New York’s depth chart. The two blue liners followed a fairly similar projection path through the NCAA, although Russo took an extra year to reach where he has (and Donovan is a bit more solid than Russo); as a lower or middle pairing defenseman who has scoring upside and a decent amount of defensive responsibility, Russo is a good option. 

Cons: It’s hard to ignore academic issues; both Patrick McNally and Max Everson quickly discovered that their year away from the ice would prove too much for the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, and Russo did miss half a season for academic problems of his own. Being named captain following a missed chunk of the season prior speaks well to a player’s potential, but some things are hard to overcome regardless. 

There’s also the concern that Russo won’t be able to replicate his offensive success at the NHL level, which leaves him as little more than a non-detrimental extra defenseman. On a good day, you may get scoring from him, but a lack of ability to really shine in any particular role could leave teams without a spot for Russo in their lineup. 

For perspective, Canucks Army’s Josh Weissbock created a fun chart looking at NHL success rates for NCAA players with similar attributes to Russo, looking mostly back at players who would have had a chance to succeed at the NHL level by now: 

CMZhycEUAAAEe1C

Looking at NCAA players from the most recent years out of this list (to sort of account for the era we’re playing in), we’ve got a downside of Reid Cashman – who was 21 in 2004 and never saw NHL ice – and an upside of Paul Martin, who’s looking to help out the San Jose Sharks next season. Our probable comparable is likely Jack Hillen, who was a serviceable blue liner with some scoring upside for a few years on the Islanders a few years back. 

Who should sign him? 

The first two teams that came to mind were Vancouver – who just lost Adam Clendening in the Brandon Sutter trade – and the Toronto Maple Leafs; both teams could use a good two-way blue liner on a cheap deal as they head into the upcoming season. Russo has four years of NCAA experience to speak for his ability to slip into the lineup, something that van Riemsdyk did well with the Blackhawks last year despite concerns regarding his size – if Russo can replicate that success for one of these two teams, he’ll be well served. 

In Vancouver, Russo serves as an immediate replacement for Clendening in multiple areas. They’re both right shots, and both put up impressive scoring numbers while in college – although that may ruin Jim Benning’s stealth tank, and we can’t have that. 

In Toronto, Russo is yet another player with building block value for what’s become a scorched earth rebuild; he’s got more offensive upside than Petter Granberg or Tom Nilsson, but would virtually serve in the same role as the two. The Leafs also just dealt away Tim Erixon in the Phil Kessel trade, although he’s a left shot and Russo is a right – and that’s something that Mike Babcock has been known to nitpick about in the past. 

If Russo needs a year or two of AHL experience, though, he’d make a good fit on either the Oilers roster or the Flames roster. 

In Edmonton, Justin Schultz is on a one year deal that has an air of ‘prove it’ surrounding it; it’s well known that the former NCAA free agent knows how to drive offense, but had trouble picking up the pieces in his own zone. There’s a risk of Joey LaLeggia turning into the same player, which creates a surplus of a problem Edmonton doesn’t need to have – and as Andrew Ference ages, Nikita Nikitin finally gets fired off into the sun somewhere, and Darnell Nurse ascends to take his throne, a depth blue liner with good all-around skills and decent scoring upside could be just what the Pacific Division club needs. 

Calgary is in a similar situation. With their failure to re-sign David Schlemko in the off-season, there’s the assumption that the Flames aren’t looking for the depth he provided right at the moment – but Russo provides more upside than Schlemko at a younger age, and an entry-level deal could get his foot in the door with the club within a year or two in a bottom-four pairing role with potential power play benefits to his game. 

The only team here at the Nations Network that Russo probably won’t benefit, of course, is the Winnipeg Jets. There’s already an insane surplus of right shot defensemen in their system – Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Paul Postma are all right shots, leaving no room to add yet another right shot to the lineup (and a preference in Winnipeg to keep players shooting on the side they play the blue line). There’s the hope that by the time Russo was ready to work his way into the lineup, one or two of those players would be gone, but Byfuglien is the only one of the four who could walk out the door – which makes Winnipeg a less than desirable landing point for the Notre Dame defenseman. 

Outside of the Nations Network, it’s already been confirmed that the Rangers aren’t looking to pick Russo up – the biggest rumors seem to be circulating in favor of Chicago (where Russo has ties to Notre Dame through free agent signee Vincent Hinostroza), but the Patrick Kane situation could leave the club with cap uncertainty that makes them hesitate to bring on more free agents. The Arizona Coyotes could use a right shot defenseman, but they’re still tinkering with their very young defensive corps; all in all, Vancouver and Toronto seem like the best landing points for Russo across the board. 

    • BurningSensation

      Each team can only have 50 players under NHL/AHL contracts. The Leafs already have 52 by my count. Not sure how they can do that. Anyway, they don’t have room to sign anyone else right now, unless he’s interested in an AHL/EHL contract.

      • Petrolero

        You did understand the writer wants this guy to play for Edmonton within the next two seasons right? possibily even taking over spots from Ference or Nikitin.

        IF the writer had been talking about a 4 or 5 year blue liner project prospect your cheeky comment would be funny, but since the point is to bassically take one of nurse, reinhardt or Schultz spots in the queue, well it’s just stupid.

    • It’s not the number of defensemen, it’s the type.

      If you assume that Aulie, Musil, and Simpson all have NHL upside – and that Klefbom and Nurse both have top four upside – add in Joey Laleggia and Jordan Oesterle as your mid-range prospects and that’s seven guys. Who are all left shot defensemen. Martin Gernat and Ben Betker lack offensive upside (at the moment) and are also both left shots. Your only two right shots in OKC last year were both ECHLers.

      It’s not life or death, but certain players thrive more when playing on their natural side. Having an entire prospect pool of left shot defensemen – a good chunk of which are bottom pairing upside or project prospects – and that’s not the kind of logjam you want.

      • Petrolero

        Aulie is not in Edmonton anymore. There is William Lagesson though, he is also a leftie but he showed well int he WJC.

        I don’t think at that stage of his development the Oilers can afford to give up a 50 man list spot to your guy.

        Let’s say for the next 5 years the Oilers top 4 will be Nurse, Klefbom, Sekera and (the biggest omission you made) Reinhardt. There is plenty of competition for bottom 2 defenders right now. Brandon Davidson has a real shot too.

        That roster spot can be used on wingers, of which there are maybe 2 decent ones in the system right now.

        If the Oilers really really need a top 4 guy who shoots right they will be in a position to make a hockey trade, no need for yet another “let’s roll the dice and hope for the best” acquisition. FYI MArk Fayne is a right shot too.

    • beloch

      Generating points isn’t the end-all, be-all for defenders, but quality NHL defenders almost always put up respectable points in lower leagues. Russo’s NHLE from last season is 33.62, which is seriously impressive.

      Consider that the Oilers have Reinhart (13.5), Nurse (22.6), Ethan Bear (13.5), David Musil (5.9), Martin Gernat (6.0), and Dillon Simpson (8.5). Nurse and Reinhart will almost certainly be NHL defenders of some sort, but Musil, Gernat, Simpson and Bear are far from sure things. Russo would be a smart add to Edmonton’s farm system.

      The Flames have Ryan Culkin (17.6), Brett Kulak (18.0), Tyler Wotherspoon (14.2), Rasmus Andersson (23.5) and Kenney Morrison (13.6) leading their system, along with Oliver Kylington who is probably the most exciting prospect but who hasn’t played in a league with a good NHLE conversion factor. Again, Russo’s offensive prowess would make him a standout in this bunch.

      Robbie Russo has put up points at a seriously impressive rate for a defender in a league that’s almost as tough as the AHL. Both the Flames and Oilers should be going after this guy. Maybe Russo doesn’t have the skills to make it in the NHL, but a defender with this much offensive upside should not be ignored.

      • Petrolero

        You forgot Joey Laleggia, Ben Betke and William Lagesson. LAgesson looked really good on the WJC, Betke is huge and can skate, and Laleggia has offensive potential.

        As for Russo’s impressive point totals, well that’s never a guarantee of anything. Remember Justin Schultz? Linus Omark?

  • SEER

    If he’s related to Rene’.. and she will come to live in Toronto with him, I’m all for it.. : )

    Have to do my homework on him more, before I say much of anything serious..

    .

    New one for you guys… He had SIX shut-outs, this past season (including the Rookie Game & a Leafs pre-season game)
    .
    THE SHUT-OUT KING: ANTOINE BIBEAU 2014-15 HIGHLIGHTS

    —-> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIZyzC2PiOw

    • camdog

      Interesting no mention of Reinhart… Oilers seem to think he can play both sides. And true Aullie contract is expired and he isn’t coming back. Oilers definitely could use another RD but their system is full of LD’s. College kids would be crazy to sign in E-town given the log jam.

    • camdog

      “Had Matt Donovan not succeeded with the Islanders, Russo would maybe still have a spot open for him in New York’s depth chart.”

      The writer doesn’t know that Matt Donavan is playing in Buffalo now.

  • More beef in the pot will not spoil the stew.

    My only concern is that it would take up another roster spot that might be used for a last minute deal (Franson maybe) or a scoop off the waiver wire.

    PC was asking if he has a mean streak,…..

  • Parallex

    It’s an asset that costs nothing but a reserve list spot… I’d take that. Worst case scenario is he ends up as your farm depth instead of some AHL lifer.

  • Leafydudetwitter

    I’m all for obtaining rights to prospects, but there’s no room to offer an ECL. If we can get him in a AHL/ECHL deal, where he doesn’t take up one of 50 NHL contracts spots, by all means TO get him!

  • Steampuck

    I appreciate that many of Benning’s moves this summer haven’t been all that popular on these pages, but what stealth tank? They remain a low-seed, playoff caliber team. If I’m wrong, then I’m happy to own up to it. But if I’m right (and I’m not claiming a first-round playoff exit has long term benefits), I hope we’ll get a series of posts from the good folks who write here who acknowledge they have completely failed to accurately assess the 2015-2016 Canucks. Without, y’know, blaming them for not winning the Stanley Cup.

  • CMpuck

    I doubt new management and coaching know exactly what we have here in terms of defence . It’ll take some time into season , as they are probably relying on info from MacT.,Howson and Green at this stage . Might explain why Ference and Nikitin were not bought out ? Doubt they bother with Russo at this stage of development .