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Nurse, Draisaitl, and Roster Battles At Training Camp

Two players, one with no chance to make the team, another with no way not to.

Derek Leung

Last week Derek posted two articles on Darnell Nurse and how he fits into, or should fit into, the Oilers' plans for the upcoming season. From the second article, Treading Water:

If Darnell Nurse is unsteady or his play is unven, but he's a better overall player than Andrew Ference, Nurse deserves the minutes ahead of Ference. If any player, be it Oscar Klefbom, Martin Gernat, Dillon Simpson or David Musil is better than Ference, he should play no matter his proclivity for shaking.

Sounds good, if he's a better option he should play. But is it really that simple? I'd argue that it's not.

Look at Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for example. In 2011 after just nine games it was clear to everyone who'd seen him play that the was one of the Oilers twelve best forwards, there was no debate about that. And yet I argued that he should be returned to junior for another year. Why? Because there would have been a benefit to the club in delaying the start of his ELC by a season in order to maintain control of him through age 26 as opposed to 25. From a cap management perspective there was something to be gained.

The same is true when a player on a two-way deal is demoted over a less deserving player on a one-way deal. Or when a waiver exempt player is sent down because the team doesn't want to risk putting another player on waivers and potentially losing him for nothing. In each case this isn't fair to the player who has shown that he's good enough to play in the NHL, but it reflects the reality that hockey is a business, and that's something that I don't think we can afford to lose sight of.

This isn't to say that Nurse should be sent back to the Soo so that the Oilers can defer his ELC for another season, it's simply meant to demonstrate that "best player should play" isn't the reality of the NHL.

Personally, what I find most interesting about Nurse's situation is how it contrasts with that of another Oilers rookie, Leon Draisaitl. With training camp now underway the countdown to the first "Draisaitl earned a spot on this team" story is underway, but, as I've said before, he's been gifted this roster spot as a result of the Oilers inability, or refusal, to acquire another option for the second line centre position. It almost doesn't matter what he does in camp he will make the Oilers.

And then there's Nurse, another player who's performance at training camp almost doesn't matter. Two events this summer sank his chances at playing in the NHL this season: the signing of Nikita Nikitin and the team's decision not to buyout* Andrew Ference who's clearly never going to come close to living up to living up to his contract. Like Draisaitl, the right things will be said about no spots being guaranteed and Nurse battling for a job, but the decision has already been made, it was made months ago.

The Oilers will be spending $7.75M, almost 40% of the total cost of their defence, on the third pairing

This is something Derek touches on as well when he talks about Nurse being a near certainty to outplay Keith Aulie and Ference, but with the top six already set there is nowhere to put him. That's a failure of management as far as I'm concerned. If my prediction for the Oilers defensive pairings is correct, the Oilers will be spending $7.75M, almost 40% of the total cost of their defence, on the third pairing. And that's going to mean a player potentially capable of playing in the NHL this season, and making his team better in the process, won't.

If the Oilers had walked away from Ference or found a more reasonable option to help improve the defence than Nikitin, then Nurse would at least have a chance to force the Oilers to make a tough decision about keeping him around. But with the roster that exists today, there is a nearly zero percent chance that a decision like that is going to be made. With a well constructed team you can have a training camp where roster positions are decided. The Oilers are not a well constructed team. Darnell Nurse isn't going to make the Oilers and Leon Draisaitl will, but by all means stay tuned for the exciting roster battles in training camp 2014.

* An earlier version of this story suggested that a compliance buyout could have been used for Ference. That's not possible as Ference's contract was signed under the current CBA.