Plenty of NHL defenseman would love to have Kris Russell's skills. Possessing the necessary tools to be a regular in the league has never been a question for the 22-year-old, Red Deer, Alberta native – the issue he's had in his young pro career is how and when to use them.
Russell had the chance to think about that when he was scratched for five of six games last month. But the Columbus Blue Jackets are seeing an improved player because of it.
"I feel like I've been playing better," says Russell, who scored three times and added a pair of assists, with two multi-point games in the first six outing following the benching. "There are still things I can clean up, obviously.
"But every day has been more comfortable."
Russell is digging deep into that personal toolbox and utilizing his natural gifts. He's been skating with speed and purpose, making better decisions and demanding the puck in the offensive zone, all with great results.
Russell reintroduced himself to the Jackets' lineup in dramatic fashion. He scored a beautiful goal and chipped in an assist in a 5-2 win over Central Division rival St. Louis on Nov. 30. The D-man has been scoring goals his whole life but he admits getting that marker against the Blues was a good way to kick start his return.
"Any time you can score, it gives you confidence," he says. "It's a step and since then, I've been trying to build off it and get better."
Russell didn't sulk when he was relegated to the press box for that stretch in November. His approach was good, and the opportunity to get a different perspective on the game usually helps a player in that situation rather than hurts them.
Assistant coach Gord Murphy says taking a seat every now and then isn't necessarily a punishment.
"If a player's struggling, to just take a game off to sit up in the press box and see it from the bird's eye view, it's slows the game down and helps simplify things," says Murphy. "In Kris's case, he had so many things running through his head, he was trying so hard, trying to do too much.
"He got back to playing to his strengths."
Russell's current defensive partner Marc Methot has been there before.
"Any time you sit out, as a defenseman especially, you don't like to watch your teammates play when you're healthy," says Methot. "I've gone through that, too and it's not fun.
"He's handled it really well. He didn't get down on himself. He had a good attitude and it's showing. He's playing with more confidence out there."
The recent maturation in Russell's game has been critical to the team, which has obviously struggled with injuries to the back end this season, most recently to veteran Rostislav Klesla. With such a versatile minute eater out of the lineup, the responsibility has fallen on the entire defensive corps to make it up.
Russell is one of those getting a chance to shine. He's been averaging about 20 minutes of ice a night since his return but most importantly, he's making the most of it with the five points and a +2 rating (and even a scrap with Toronto's Phil Kessel) heading into Monday's home game against the Nashville Predators.
"With the way Kris skates, with such great acceleration, we don't want to restrict him," says Murphy. "That was one of the things, he just got some hesitation in his game. He's gotten through that.
"Both mentally and physically, he's in a good place right now." - - Assistant Coach Gord Murphy
While Russell's own game has improved, he and his teammates recognize that Columbus as a whole needs to raise its level. The Jackets found themselves in a similar situation at this point last season but the young defenseman acknowledges this is a different team with different goals.
"We're not happy with the inconsistencies," says Russell. "We can be better in this room. The guys know that and we're working hard to get to that point."
Russell's recent experience can hopefully be viewed as a microcosm of the season – things weren't going well but after taking a step back and retooling, the improvement has come. Then again, not everyone can go to the press box to get that different view and though Russell benefited from his time off, he'd rather stay right where he is – making plays on the ice.
"You can see different looks and different holes," Russell says of the press box view. "It's easy watching from up top but when you're back in the battle it's a lot harder.
"I was just trying to stay positive and work hard so when I did get an opportunity, I took advantage of it."