Top 25 Under 25 - #5 - Darnell Nurse

The big Defenceman ranks as the team's top prospect outside the NHL by a wide margin and is the only prospect to rank above some of the Oilers' established NHL players.

Darnell Nurse is clearly cemented as the Oilers' top prospect currently outside of the NHL.  Now, that status has been helped by the fact that Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom, the team's other top young players have both been called up this season, but nevertheless, Nurse's range of skills certainly makes him the team's best opportunity of developing their own top pairing blueliner. Something the team has not done in a very, very long time.

Rank Player DOB Drafted Year Alan Ben Bruce DB Derek JW Michael Ryan Scott Zsolt
5 Darnell Nurse
02/04/95 7 2013 4 6 6 8 4 6 5 5 5 5

Previous Rank: 7

Nurse just wrapped his regular season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. How did it go? Well, there is nothing that I can write here that is going to tell the story better than this excellent piece written by Ryan Dittrick for Sportsnet.ca.

I really think everyone should click on that link. It's really some great work and has some excellent comments from Soo GM Kyle Dubas. The Greyhounds are well known for their early adoption of analytics in hockey and Dubas' comments provide tremendous insight into the more detailed stats that tell the tale of Nurse's performance this season. A few select quotes from that article:

I caught up with Hounds general manager Kyle Dubas last week at the OHL Cup to discuss that in more detail.

"He’s the captain of our team – the heart-and-soul leader of a team that’s really overachieved," he said. "The reason why we’ve been able to do that and have the success we’ve had is because of what Darnell brings to the table every single day."

Off the ice and in the dressing room, the captain’s chronicles run deep. "Five minutes. That’s all you need to see what kind of a leader he is," Dubas says. "The work ethic he has in the weight room, how he involves everyone on the team at all times…"

That is certainly high praise coming from the team's GM and reflects well on Nurse's character. But what about his on-ice performance?:

"People get obsessed with Darnell’s plus/minus (plus-1, down from plus-15 the year prior), but his underlying numbers are excellent," Dubas said. "Relative to the competition he plays [against], he does extremely well. Far greater than 50 percent of the time, the puck is not in our end. To me, it doesn’t get much bigger than that. If we’re taking the other team’s best players and forcing them to play in their end and away from the puck, that’s a successful day.

"The quality of competition he’s faced is higher than anyone else in our league, especially among defencemen."

Given that context, the numbers that Darnell Nurse have produced this season are simply outstanding. He's averaged 27 minutes per night while playing the most difficult minutes possible at even strength, plus significant time on both special teams. He finished the regular season with 13g-37a-50p in 64 games and led the Greyhounds to a 2nd place seed in the Western Conference of the OHL. With the OHL playoffs just getting underway, its a great opportunity for Oiler fans to get a chance to watch Nurse to see how he has developed over the course of this season.

The embarrassment of riches the Oilers have had slowly advancing toward the NHL, particularly along the left side of their blueline, is starting to bear fruit. I'm quite certain if you ask Nurse, Klefbom and Marincin, they will all tell you they expect to play in the NHL next season. The big issue there is that with Oiler Captain  Andrew Ference having 3 years left on his contract and a full no-movement clause (another story for another day...) and fans and media all advocating for the Oilers to add a couple of top pairing blueliners to address the holes (note the plural...there are many of them) at the top of the depth chart, there's likely only room for one, maybe two of these three highly regarded players on the Oiler roster next October.

I think it is safe to say the Oilers are unlikely to start next season with a top six of Marincin, Petry, Nurse, Schultz, Klefbom and Ference along the blueline. So, it seems fairly logical that some of the team's well regarded young players along the blueline may have to be made available in trade discussions.

After speaking with Darnell earlier this season, I can say that I came away very impressed and I'm now a fan. I've made a point of watching at least a dozen or so Greyhound games to keep tabs on him this season and he's looked very good. From a personal standpoint, I hope that Nurse is a guy the organization holds on to as I think he has incredible potential, but whatever the decision, the narrative that has existed the last few years (abysmal NHL defence, talented young prospects below the surface) appears ripe for change in Edmonton this summer.

The Oiler defence corps appears ready to finally get its long overdue overhaul this off-season. Darnell Nurse will play a large role in that change. The question is really whether he will be part of the solution on the ice, or if he will be dealt in order to bring in an established top pairing player. Its going to be an interesting off-season for the entire Oiler organization with regard to the franchise's assets along the blueline. How will the pieces fit together? It should become more clear over the next four months or so, but as it currently stands, Darnell Nurse may be the biggest piece of the puzzle for the Oilers.

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