(Author’s Note: Copper & Blue would like to take say thank you to Darnell Nurse, as well as Kyle Dubas and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds organization for being a pleasure to deal with. They represented their franchise with a great deal of class in all of our communications with them and we appreciate their assistance in coordinating our interview with Darnell)
At Copper & Blue, I've been provided with the opportunity to speak to a number of Oiler prospects. All of them have conducted themselves with a great deal of class and professionalism. That said, I came away from the experience with Darnell Nurse perhaps the most impressed of all of my conversations so far. I'll admit up front to almost getting lost in the interview a couple of times because he was providing such detailed answers that he was asking many of the questions I had planned before I could pose them. It was obvious to me through speaking with him that he is extremely focused on taking his game to the next level this season.
One thing that stood out to me (he mentions it in the text below, but I don't think the emotion will be conveyed accurately in the text) was how impacted he was by not making the Oilers this season. I think many Oiler fans assumed that he would be going back to the OHL this season, and weren't surprised when he was sent down to his CHL team, but you can tell Darnell wanted it badly. I don't want to project words upon him, but he seemed upset by it in the best way possible. There was no hint of bitterness or discontent, just an obvious resolve that suggested that he doesn't intend on allowing that to happen again next year. That's something I've never seen before in any of my previous prospect interviews, and for an 18 year old, it was both surprising and welcome. This young man is driven. With a skill set like his and the intensity with which he is pursuing his hockey career, I have a feeling he'll be wearing the Oil drop sooner than later.
Here is a transcript of my conversation with Darnell. I hope you enjoy reading his comments as much as I enjoyed hearing them:
Copper & Blue: How are you settling back in to Sault Ste. Marie? It must have been a pretty crazy summer for you. With the draft and then following that up with your first development camp, as well as the Oilers' rookie and main camps. How has it been getting back into a routine with the Greyhounds?
Darnell Nurse: Yeah, the adjustment back has been pretty easy though. I think its been pretty fluid. I mean, this is a place that I love to play. It's a great organization and we have a great team this year in Sault Ste. Marie. Everything has been really positive and its been great to get back in the red and white and go to work every day.
C&B: So you've been able to get right back in sync with your coaches, are the systems that you're being asked to play with the Greyhounds dramatically different than what you were being asked to do in Edmonton?
Nurse: I think the biggest difference is my role here. Here I'm playing like 25-30 minutes a night and playing in all situations. Penalty kill, powerplay, and playing 5-on-5 against the other team's top lines, so I have a heavy work load every night, but y'know, its great. I think our systems between here and Edmonton are actually quite similar in a lot of aspects so its been easy for me to jump right back in to the on-ice game here and playing our systems and knowing what I have to do in every situation on the ice.
C&B: You mentioned the role you're playing on the team this year. That is a bit of a change from last season. The Greyhounds lost a couple of defencemen this year in Ryan Sproul and Colin Miller who were a big part of the blueline last season. Can you talk about what your role was like last season and where the biggest changes are taking place this year?
Nurse: Well last year I played more of a second unit role on the powerplay. We had a team last year with a lot of experience and a lot of skilled guys that could go out and play a minute and a half on the powerplay if not the whole thing. The first unit this year was pretty much the second unit last year so we basically went out and picked up the scraps of whatever time was left once that first unit came off. So, I played on the powerplay a little bit but I didn't get a whole lot of exposure to it or get a chance to put up a whole lot of points playing on the powerplay...it was more of a five-on-five thing for me. Now, this year they've put me on the first unit and I'm even also playing some time on the second unit as well when our lines switch up, so I've pretty much been playing the entire powerplay these last five games since I've been back here.
So, my role's a little different now. I've become more of a shot presence on the blueline, especially in our last game, getting off some one-timers and letting a lot of shots go from the top to try and open up space for our skilled forwards down low and in the middle of the offensive zone, so I've really been utilized to come in and try to produce some points for our team and so far its been going pretty well.
C&B: What about with respect to the penalty kill? Has your role increased there as well?
Nurse: The penalty kill my role has been pretty much the same. I've was on the first unit on the PK last year and I'm doing that again this season. I probably play about half of each PK opportunity. Usually its either me with Tyler Ganly or Alex Gudbranson. We normally go out there and play about half the penalty kill. It's a high pressure system so you get pretty tired very quickly. So, I play a pretty big role doing that and this is my second season doing that. It's something that I'm really used to and they put a lot of trust in me to go out there and get it done.
C&B: You mentioned that you're playing the opposition's top lines at even strength, I believe that's consistent with what you did last year as well, correct? Have your 5-on-5 minutes gone up as well?
Nurse: Um, I'd say my even strength minutes are around the same. This year the only real change is that we have a younger D corps so every once in a while they will switch up the pairings and I'll go back out with a younger player, but other than that, my even strength minutes are generally the same based on the fact that I played a similar role in that area last year. The biggest difference for me in ice-time definitely comes from the powerplay. That's where I've increased my time by two or three minutes a game.
C&B: Have you had any discussions with your coaches about how to manage the additional volume of minutes and the heavier workload you are carrying this season?
Nurse: I think for me, the biggest change has been watching more video. Just comparing these first five games to my whole season last year and just simplifying my game and really conserving my energy. There were times last year where I would be running all over in my own zone trying to get the job done, but at the same time, I was expending a lot of energy. For me this year it has become more of a compact game. Letting the game just come to me, staying in between the dots and really being aware of where I am in my own zone position-wise. I think that has made my life a lot easier and it is helping me to conserve the energy that I need to be able to play 25-30 minutes a night.
C&B: Have you had to change your training regimen at all?
Nurse: I haven't had to make any major adjustments. Here the main focus is usually on our cardio and being explosive, so with our workouts that we have through the team there hasn't really been any change in the way I work out. I mean, I'm a pretty lean guy (laughs) so probably my biggest challenge this year is going to be to my diet and trying to put on a few pounds, but I want to stay a comfortable weight where I can go out there and play those big minutes and be high energy.
C&B: I have to ask a few questions about your coaches and the management with the Greyhounds. They are well-known around the hockey community for your GM (Kyle Dubas) and your Head Coach (Sheldon Keefe) have embraced the concepts of advanced analytics into their analysis of both team and individual performance as a supplement to what they observe on the ice. Do they communicate any of that to you and your teammates on the ice?
Nurse: I think that its more of an internal thing for the coaching staff and for Kyle. There are certainly points in the season where they will bring up the stats and show us face-off percentages and time-on-ice stats and things like that, but those are more general stats. There are different phases of the season where they will bring up the more advanced stats and break them down with us as a team. There's also obviously our video sessions and times where you can go in and talk to the coach and he'll bring up some stats and you'll have the chance to look them over. I think as far as knowing every situation and what your numbers are, this is probably one of the only teams in the league where you have the option of going up and talking to them about it because they always have stats available for us. You always know things that you need to work on whether its seen through video or through advanced stats, as I said, this is one of the most advanced teams in the league and really the entire CHL in that area.
C&B: As a guy who won the Bobby Smith trophy last year (for the OHL's Academic Player of the Year), congratulations on that by the way, you obviously work hard at your education and I'd imagine analysis might appeal to you on some level. I can't imagine any player obsessing over these kinds of stats because at the end of the day, wins are what matters most, but are advanced stats something you're conscious of from a developmental standpoint in terms of helping you assess your strengths and ways that you can improve your game, or do you rely more on the instruction you receive from your coaches?
Nurse: I think its a healthy balance of both. Obviously you receive input from your coaches which comes first. You're always going to listen to your coaches and incorporate whatever is in their game plan into your game. As far as me going over film and me going over plays on the weekends, whether its three games that you go over, I think that the advanced analytics can go hand-in-hand with that. I think its a great way to break down how well you've been playing and identifying certain things that you can work on in your game. Definitely the coaches and their word always comes first, but when you go back and analyze things later, I think that stats go hand-in-hand with that.
C&B: Moving away from advanced stats, are there any general concepts that your coaches ask you to remain conscious of during a game or do they mostly just work on things in practice and let you rely on your instincts once the puck drops?
Nurse: I think it is pretty instinctive once the game starts just based on the fact that we've been working on gameplans all week long. We watch a lot of video here. You definitely try to go out there and do in a game what you do in a practice. After six or seven days of working on it things just become second nature and I think for any hockey player going through a season, when you know your systems it just becomes something you go out and do without really thinking too much about it.
C&B: You mentioned before that you're a lean guy, but for a CHL player you're still a pretty big player and everyone knows that the physical aspect is something that you enjoy incorporating into your game. Players who bring that level of physicality frequently have trouble staying out of the penalty box. Your PIMs jumped way up to 116 PIMs last season. Do you discuss with your coaches about maintaining that level of intensity while ensuring that you don't take too many penalties?
Nurse: That's something that I had to learn last year. This year I think I've learned the difference between what is a good penalty and what is a dumb penalty. Last year I got myself into a little trouble by trying to prove too much and I think I really started to calm down by Christmas. I'm pretty sure about 80 of those penalty minutes game in the first 40 games and by Christmas I had kind of calmed it down, but that was definitely a discussion I had with my coaches, just finding different ways to be hard to play against without putting myself in a situation where I had to take a penalty, whether that's a stick penalty or roughing...just know the right times to take a penalty. I think its something that for me, it took me a year to learn to play with that edge but not cross it.
C&B: One of the other things about being your size at this level is that you play against a lot of players that are significantly smaller than you. That can sometimes can issues for defencemen because those players have a lower centre of gravity and they can kind get under a tall Dman. Do you have to alter your approach when playing against smaller forwards?
Nurse: I think when you have a smaller player you probably have to go a little more into of a containment approach. You don't want them to beat you with their speed and quickness. When you are playing against a big body you've got a lot of room to make contact, so its just the mindset that you take changes a little bit based on the size of the player. Really it all comes down to stick placement and closing on guys no matter what size they are, they basic rules to go in and engage them are always the same.
C&B: Is it more difficult to avoid taking penalties against guys where you have to try and match their quickness?
Nurse: Actually I find that I take more penalties against the bigger guys. I get into battles and maybe get a little too active with my stick or my hands.
C&B: With regard to the time you were able to spend with the Oilers over the last few months, having watched almost every game you played in while you were there, it certainly seemed that after a little adjustment period in the rookie tournament that you were getting pretty comfortable later in the main camp. Specifically there was a game against the Canucks I believe where you played up around 24 minutes. It certainly appeared that you had earned the confidence of the Oiler coaching staff and advanced your game a great deal in a short amount of time. What are you taking away from that experience that gives you confidence going forward and what things, if any, are you taking away as things that you need to improve upon before going back there next season?
Nurse: I think for me it was just a great learning experience and I took away a lot of things. Not only as a player, but also, for me, that was my first experience where I had to go through getting cut like that. Where I was sent home...y'know, you get a little taste of your dream and when it gets taken away it stings a little bit. With that said though, that was one of the best months of my life. I had the most fun playing with guys who do that for a living and it reinforced that that is definitely something that I want to do in the future. As far as things I have to work on, I think it comes down to one of the biggest things being my size. I mean, you're playing against men, so when I guy is six feet tall, he's 210 lbs. That's very different than playing against a guy in the OHL who is six feet tall but not physically developed. They're a little bit easier for me to push around.
So, for me, its just a matter of getting in the weight room and learning what to eat, while of course continuing to work on my game and my positioning in my own zone. I mean, there are always those little things in your game that you can work on that make the biggest difference. A split second in the NHL is a lot different than a split second in Junior. In Junior you can make up for it, but in the NHL if you get beat by a split second the puck ends up in the back of your net. The small things they gave us are what is going to make the difference for me to get to the next level and have the patience with the puck. That's come a long way, especially here in Junior. Its gonna come and as long as I'm getting better every day everything will take care of itself.
C&B: This is your first season post-draft as a member of the Oilers organization. What conversations have you had with them with regard to what you can expect to hear from the as the season progresses? What is the in-season communication plan that you have arranged with them?
Nurse: They'll constantly be in contact throughout the year. All NHL organizations have a lot of development personnel and scouts and stuff and I think at the majority of my games there will be someone there from the Oilers watching and there will be back and forth communication all year long. We also have a pretty highly ranked forward here in Jared McCann so I imagine there will be a lot of scouts here from the Oilers to see him too. There will always be someone watching.
C&B: Have they given you any indication as to what their timeline is for you for advancing to the next level?
Nurse: I'm just continuing to work away and when it happens, it happens. I'm just going to be prepared for it whenever it comes.
C&B: What are your personal goals for this season?
Nurse: I think that being a leader on this team is the biggest goal for me and to help this team get to the Memorial Cup. You never know when you Junior career is going to end and the Memorial Cup is definitely my greatest goal this year and I'm going to do everything I can to help my team get there.
Follow Darnell Nurse on twitter at @drtwofive