Kris Russell is a realist. When the second-year Jackets' defenseman was told he was going down to the Syracuse Crunch to retool his game, Russell didn't whine or complain. He wasn't necessarily happy about the news but Russell himself knew that the hockey he played in the opening month of the season wasn't good enough for the demands of the NHL.
He was eager to work on his game. The hard part was leaving a room full of buddies behind.
"I missed the guys," says Russell, who's looked like a different player in the couple of weeks since returning from his AHL stint. "They were my teammates for the whole year last year so when you get sent down, you go to another team and it's a little different."
They, in turn, missed him. Especially his friend and roommate Jared Boll. The two have shared a place since their rookie seasons last year. Boll took it just as hard when Russell got word of his Syracuse trip, though the Columbus tough guy did notice one thing in his friend's absence – the place was a lot cleaner.
"He leaves messes all over the place when he's at home so I didn't miss that," Boll says with a laugh. "But I would rather him leave messes than be in Syracuse.
"It was like your brother leaving," he adds. "I was used to him being around and having someone to hang out with."
Boll says he sees a big difference in Russell since his return. Not so much off the ice, where the 21-year-old Red Deer, Alberta native is his usual upbeat self. It's on the ice where Boll and the rest of the Jackets have noticed Russell's growth. The 14 games the D-man played with the Crunch were productive on two fronts – Russell managed to rack up some points (three goals and five assists) but more importantly, he got his confidence back and began using the range of skills he possesses.
That confidence, Russell says, wasn't there at the start of the season.
"It was mostly confidence in playing my own game, moving my feet, carrying the puck, making plays with the puck," he says. "At the start of the year, I wasn't doing that. Especially with my size, I have to use my speed to my advantage and if I'm not doing that, I'm not helping the team.
"Getting sent down, for me, was good. I got to get back to what made me successful throughout the years in junior and what got me to this point."
Head coach Ken Hitchcock says that Russell had the right attitude about his Syracuse assignment. There was no pouting, just hard work.
"He really had a lot of fun," the coach says. "There isn't the stress or pressure that there is up here.
"When he came back up, he was confident and hungry."
Hitchcock also points out that playing well in the NHL at the age of 21 is a feat in itself. And that's what Russell has been doing in recent weeks, especially at the offensive end. He's scored three points in the past two games, including a one goal, one assist effort on the road in Anaheim.
Points were one of the trademarks of Russell's game as a junior player. He racked up 72 goals in his four years playing with Medicine Hat, a career that included Western Hockey League Player of the Year honors as well as being named the Defenseman of the Year in Canada.
When Russell scored the first two NHL goals in a wild road win over the Dallas Stars last January, it looked like the floodgates were set to open. But his numbers didn't take off from there.
In Syracuse, Russell began to once again do the things that made him such an offensive threat, namely using his speed and getting the puck to forwards quickly in transition.
"That's what they want," he says. "Be up the ice, be up on the attack.
"That's my game and I have to make sure that when I find a hole, I jump quick because in this league, you only have a few seconds to take the pass and get a shot off."
In his own zone, Russell says he has to use his head, especially as a smaller defenseman.
"You have to think the game," he says. "In today's game, there's not much clutching and grabbing so you have to use your body position because guys can't go through you. Look at guys like (Detroit's Brian) Rafalski and (Anaheim's Scott) Neidermeyer, they have such great body position that they make it tough for the big players to go through.
"I think that's why they are so successful because they use that to their advantage."
Now that Russell has, in the words of Hitchcock, "refined" his game, the next step is producing every night out.
"Consistency is huge," says Russell. "You want to be known as a consistent player. At the start of the year, I wasn't.
"It's going pretty well now. But I still have to get better."