The "wow this prospect is looking down his stick at the camera" shot may be the stupidest thing about the NHL draft today. Perceptive readers will realize this has nothing whatsoever to do with Darnell Nurse but when else am I going to get a chance to rant about this? Maybe the first prospect who did it looked edgy and aggressive. But photographers keep going for it and every single year it looks stupider and stupider and it's the year 2013 and we're still going and eventually one of the prospects is going to snap and give the photographer an Easton enema and I'll say good.
Anyway, Darnell Nurse. The Oilers' latest first-round pick comes to us from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds with glowing credentials. A fistful of goals, assists, and penalty minutes, a reputation for the skillful employment of size and enough offense to back up his truculence, Nurse's boxcar numbers are impressive. He was the third-leading defensive scorer on the Greyhounds behind the touted Ryan Sproul and October-'92-born Colin Miller. He's not the classic Edmonton Oilers cement truck like Colten Teubert and he's not a bantamweight like Taylor Chorney. He looks, at a glance, like he was worth a top-ten pick.
But it would be a pretty crappy article if that was the whole story.
Previous Rank: N/A
Derek Zona is the optimist on Nurse, putting him just off the podium; that of course requires him to rank at least one established young Oilers forward out of the top five and I'll let you guess which one it is. Scott also gave Nurse a lot of love. The rest of us seem content to lump Nurse into the more-or-less-decent bunch below the NHL forwards, though with varying priorities. It says something that a recent seventh-overall pick is, in the Oilers' context, a second-tier prospect, but I'm not sure what.
A week and a bit ago Derek Zona linked to respected OHL blogger Brock Otten virtually gushing over Nurse with phrases like "top pairing potential at the NHL level" and "I'd be very surprised if he's not one of the highest scoring defenseman in the league next year." Then last week Derek's latest Nurse article also walked the optimistic side of the line. Well, why not? In his draft year, Nurse posted legitimately good numbers without the benefit of serious powerplay time. The Greyhounds finished second in their division and despite a first-round playoff upset loss to Owen Sound were clearly a solid team. By all accounts, they did not flatter Nurse by overplaying him.
With Sault Ste. Marie finishing third in goals for in the OHL last year, Nurse's point totals would benefit from playing on an offensively-oriented team. They also didn't have a great defense, which probably makes Nurse's +15 look more impressive.
So here's the caveat. Looking further back than last season raises a few small question marks over Nurse, and in light of the love he's been getting it's worth examining that.
We are, in essence, praising Nurse because of one very good but not quite first-class season as well as his physical gifts. Nurse's draft-minus-one season of 10 points and -15 in 53 games had not much to recommend it. He was the leading 1995-born scorer on the team at the time and played a regular role; it wasn't bad, but it wasn't top-pairing-NHL-prospect exceptional. As a big guy he'd naturally have advantages in the OHL that wouldn't necessarily translate to the NHL. He's also an early February birthday and thus relatively mature for his draft year. These are little things but always worth bearing in mind when we try to compare Nurse to his peers.
Today's top young offensive defensemen had decent draft-1 years in the CHL. Alex Pietrangelo was nearly point-per-game in 2006-07 with 52 points in 59 games. Mike Green had 42 points the season before he was drafted, James Wisniewski managed 23 points, P.K. Subban had 12. With 16 points in 64 games in his draft-1 season Dougie Hamilton, who's been cited as a potential comparison, was also noticeably ahead of Nurse. There are exceptions (Kris Letang and Shea Weber mostly played midget) but Nurse's early-career major junior offense does not stand out among what we hope will be his peers.
With Nurse being larger and a bit older than his competitors we'd expect him to have a slightly better early career, not a noticeably worse one. It's not the end of the world, obviously, but we have to decide for ourselves whether his somewhat-below-par 2011-12 or his first-round-calibre 2012-13 most closely represents Nurse's true skill. I know that, if Nurse becomes Colten Teubert, that 2011-12 season will stand out in hindsight.
So maybe Nurse is the real deal, and his high ranking reflects that. Seventh is a pretty optimistic position in the Top 25 Under 25, the Oilers being what they are. But defensemen have tricky development paths, sometimes, and a long-term perspective will help keep us from anointing him the defensive equivalent of Jordan Eberle.
Check out the complete Top 25 Under 25 List in our