SUN Hockey Pool

Jackets d-man Russell makes 'home' start

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

The whole town of Caroline wasn't on hand at the Calgary Flames game last night.

It just seemed like it.

Thanks to Kris Russell's first NHL game late last night in the Saddledome, the Columbus Blue Jackets had plenty of supporters, hailing from his hometown where he played his minor hockey or from Medicine Hat, where he starred with the WHL's Tigers last season.

The real feat for Russell was he only had to fork out for one pair of tickets, despite having a throng of support -- well over 50 by his count.

"I really did get off easy," the defenceman said after the morning skate. "My mom and my family did a good job of finding tickets. It was less pressure on me to count all the tickets and find them all."

Skating in the 'Dome is nothing new to Russell. Nor is watching him play.

As a member of the Tigers, he visited Calgary plenty of times. Did a number on the Calgary Hitmen, too, en route to being named the WHL's top player and top defenceman last season.

But, even to the 20-year-old who admittedly grew up a Flames fan, there was something extra special in taking to the ice for last night's clash against the Flames.

"For sure. It's a different level. It's the NHL," he said. "I grew up watching the Flames and watching games in this building. I played a lot of games here, but it's a different league."

Expect to see him come around plenty in the future.

Not many make the jump to the NHL without a stint in the minors, but Russell, a third-round pick (67th overall, in the 2005 draft), stuck with the Jackets out of training camp.

With three assists to his name in 23 NHL games heading into last night's affair, he's not lighting up the league like he did with the Tigers -- he had 32 goals and 69 points in 59 games -- but he's making a mark and earning high praise.

"He's going to have a very good career," said veteran defenceman Adam Foote. "To be successful like he has at a young age, you have to be very smart, and he's a very intelligent guy. You can tell he gets it.

"Obviously, he's a great skater, moves the puck and sees the game well, but he just gets hockey."

At 5-ft.-10, 177 lb., he's not going to be a bone-crusher. Physically, he'll have a tough time with most players in the league, where the average size is more than 200 lb.

Instinct says he's in the NHL for offensive production, but he wouldn't still be with the Jackets if he couldn't help keep the puck out his net.

That's why the defenceman, who's playing an average of 15 minutes per game, isn't fretting about his personal production.

"That was part of my game in junior, and it might be part of my game two or three years from now, but right now I have to build good minutes," Russell said. "The coaches have let me know my role -- filling good minutes, being quick on the transition, get ting the puck out of zone, and if I see an opening, jumping into the play. I'm looking to build off that and get better."

He was named the best d-man in all the CHL, on top of winning the WHL crown and reaching the final at the Memorial Cup tournament.

That kind of experience isn't easy to get and likely is a big reason he's made the jump.

"Those were huge situations I was put in," he said. "For a younger player, it's a great experience in world juniors and Memorial Cups, the high pressure situations with the cameras on you, so you get a taste of it.

"But this really is the next level. You have it every night and have to be accountable for what you do every night."

Who knows? Maybe Russell will open more eyes as to what a 'small' defenceman can do. With the game more about positioning, speed and skill than brute force these days.


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