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What If Darnell Does it?

The Oilers have an enormous need on defense. What happens if their enormous young defenseman shows as the best option?

Derek Leung

Training camp is right around the corner. Depending on who you ask, the Oilers biggest need is either a legit NHL centre or a top four defenseman.  Both Ryan and Curtis have touched on it in the last few days:

If Schultz or Ference can't cover the bet then the team will have to look to Nikitin to take on that role, but he couldn't crack Columbus' top four last season so that seems like a long shot at best. And all of this assumes that Marincin will be able to play consistent, quality, minutes in the top four, if that doesn't pan out we'll be left hoping that Ben Scrivens can make 59 saves every night.

Ryan's likely opening night defense stacks up like this:

Martin Marincin - Jeff Petry
Justin Schultz - Mark Fayne
Andrew Ference - Nikita Nikitin
Keith Aulie

Curtis has concerns over the Oilers ability to hide Schultz:

If Fayne and Nikitin can come in and take on the second-pairing minutes that Ference and Schultz saw last season, then that should allow Schultz to start more shifts in the offensive zone, and more against third-pairing opposition. Essentially, he should make a significant trip southeast on the same graph next season.

Both views are grounded, but what happens when the big man from the Soo Greyhounds shows up?

Darnell Nurse was the story in 2013 training camp.  He clearly had the physical tools and demonstrated that throughout both September camps, and fans began to wonder if the Oilers were going to leave him on the team to start the season.  There were concerns over his offense, however, and the Oilers did the right thing and sent him back to SSM for another year of growth.  As I said then:

First, Nurse is due for a spike in his offensive numbers as he moves to the top power play unit. If he stays on the top PK, however, it will draw away from his even strength time, so his ES offense may dip. Nurse is already playing a ton of minutes, so his TOI isn't going to climb by much, if at all.

Second, if Nurse does see a jump in his offense, say in the range of .75 - .80 points per game, the concerns over offense are going to drop away.

Nurse tallied 50 points in 64 games, or .75 points per game.  He produced enough to show that he's got the offensive acumen to go with the size and physical ability.

This brings us to 2014.  The Oilers have two legitimate top-four defensemen, one surprise kid they hope continues a high level of play, a reclamation project, an over-the-hill bottom pairing guy and another kid that plays defense like the faceoff circle is a bed and any ice towards the glass is lava.  Oh, and the ghost of Mark Fraser.

In my mind, it's a foregone conclusion that Nurse is going to outplay Keith Aulie for the 7th spot.  It's also a foregone conclusion that he's going to outplay localboyAndrewFerence, but Nurse isn't know for being good in the room and doesn't know how to teach the rest of the team how to be a hanger-on around winning teams. In these scenarios, the Oilers might be able to make a case for sending Nurse back to SSM.  They don't want him sitting around waiting on an injury to draw in, and they can't bench localboyAndrewFerence a year after claiming he was going to change everything.

But things get extremely dicey for management if Nurse shows better than Nikita Nikitin and/or Justin Schultz.  The Oilers can't wait anymore, but by the time they accumulate enough NHL players to win, Jeff Petry and David Perron will be gone and Taylor Hall will probably be in the midst of a public trade demand.  If he's ready, the right move is to demote Aulie and move Ference to the press box.  Knowing that won't happen, are the Oilers ready to admit a mistake with either Nikitin or Schultz and play Nurse in their place?  Are they willing to risk another January out of the playoff race to save face?