By Alan Avital
With four of its top six defensemen being 33 years and older, the Islander organization realized that it was imperative to re-stock its system with young and mobile blue-liners. They have selected 12 defensemen over the past four entry drafts, including four this past June in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Robbie Russo was the third defensemen to be taken by the Islanders in June, selected in the fourth round (95th overall). While his selection didn’t receive the same fan-fare as first rounder Ryan Strome, Russo’s hope is that his steady second-half play with the U.S. National Team last spring will translate into a solid collegiate career at the University of Notre Dame and beyond.
“I believe that I am one of those defensemen who plays well with the puck,” said Russo, who helped the U.S. under-18 national team win its third straight championship this past May. “I am calm back there and I play with poise, but I know that if I want to take that next step, I need to physically get stronger.”
Standing 5-feet-11 inches tall and weighing 186 pounds, Russo believes that adding 10 pounds will be greatly beneficial to his overall play. Still, it was his offensive prowess that drew the attention of current Notre Dame head coach and former Islander assistant Jeff Jackson, when recruiting the 18-year old Russo.
“We recruited him because of his offensive potential,” said Jackson, who ironically compares his young defenseman to former Islander standout Kenny Jonsson. “Kenny was a good decision-maker and a good skater, as is Robbie. But Robbie knows that he has to get physically stronger to become a more explosive defenseman.”
Russo’s introduction to the sport of hockey began at the tender age of three, as he went with his parents to a “Free Skate” in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois.
“My parents could see that I could skate,” said Russo. “So everything escalated from there.”
Russo, who continued to play hockey for the next decade on the pee-wee level throughout the Chicago area, moved on to play high school hockey at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan where collegiate and U.S. national scouts took notice.
“Pioneer High School was a good place to develop. It also got me a lot of exposure,” said Russo.
But it was a sub-par first half for the U.S. National Team that hurt Russo’s draft ranking, allowing the Islanders to sneak up and grab him a few rounds earlier than expected.
“Robbie was hoping to be selected in the first two rounds, but he was just average in the first half last season,” said Jackson. “He really picked up his play in the second half and played real well. You could see the instincts on the blue-line, and he is here (Notre Dame) to gain that defensive intensity.”
Through the early part of his freshman season at Notre Dame, Russo’s off-season hard work has earned the confidence of his sixth-year head coach. Jackson has played his team’s second-youngest player in even strength, penalty kill and power play situations.
“Coach Jackson is big on details, “said Russo, who has assisted on two of Notre Dame’s goals in his first five collegiate games. “He has told me to be myself, and has given me good minutes so far.”
Russo’s teammate and highly-touted Islander prospect Anders Lee also has taken notice.
“Robbie is a great defenseman,” said Lee, who himself leads the country in goal scoring with eight, including notching his second-career hat-trick in Friday night’s 5-2 Notre Dame victory over RPI to open up the brand-new Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. “He is playing on our power play. It is nice having him shoot the puck.”
Islander fans got a glimpse of Russo this past June when he joined Lee on Long Island for the Blue-White scrimmage.
“It was pretty cool going down to New York and seeing a lot of the guys,” said Russo, who himself eyes current San Jose Shark Dan Boyle and Detroit Red Wing and future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom as guys he has patterned his game after. “There are a lot of good, young defensemen there (on Long Island). The competition is definitely stiff, but I am definitely excited to show the Islanders that one day I could be a difference maker.”
By Alan Avital