Prospects and draft picks are two areas with the ability to cause the most excitement in hockey fans. The unknown potential, the expectations, and the mystery around both prospects and draft picks create compelling stories. If a player is drafted, will he turn into a good investment or a bust? What can fans expect? More than anything else to do with professional hockey, player development is full of question marks. Everything from a player's readiness to compete straight out of junior (many first overall picks) to a player's ability to deal with media scrutiny and the pressure to win are analyzed by fans watching and waiting to see exactly what the team has to offer in the future.
One of the prospects who has spent more than a little time in the limelight for Edmonton fans is Darnell Nurse. Selected 7th Overall in 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Nurse was drafted in the Oilers' best season, results wise, in several years. However, if one were to believe that not being a 1st overall pick was going to diminish the expectations placed on Nurse, that person would be making a mistake. Nurse has been one of the more talked-about prospects. Huge expectations have been created when it comes to the role Nurse will eventually fill on the Oilers defensive roster: Nurse is to become a "pillar" on Oilers blue line, playing in all situations.
Nurse is a defenseman who should, if all the indications are to be believed, play a very important role in the Oilers' future defense. Nurse is a big defenseman --he's 6'4"-- who is able to play physically and with an edge. Beyond the obvious physical attributes, Nurse skates well and had a very strong training camp for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2014-2015 season. Nurse made the opening night roster but was sent back to junior in mid-October. While this may not have been Nurse's preference, it did allow him to develop his game further with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and with Team Canada at the 2015 World Junior tournament. This also gave Nurse the chance to gain more physical strength and confidence and become a more imposing force on the blue line.
When it comes to comparing Nurse to other NHL talent, scouting reports of Nurse have compared him favourably to Chris Pronger. Nurse's game, much like Pronger's, is based in physicality with an edge. Lauded for having a "nasty edge" his game, Nurse is expected to be a very physical defenseman. His early performances with Oilers, notably the 2014-2015 Oilers Rookies vs. Golden Bears game, have shown Nurse is unafraid to use that edge, perhaps relying on it in situations where it is inappropriate. Nurse will need to temper his meanness so while he remains physical, he doesn't spend an undue amount of time in the penalty box.
Nurse only managed 36 games with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the 2015-2015 season, but he was nearly a point per game player with 33 points throughout his shortened season. Nurse's points per game also improved throughout his junior career, despite a focus on defensive play in his last year with the Greyhounds. Nurse has been a large part of the improvement seen at Sault Ste. Marie. Besides being a remarkably talented player and providing the Greyhounds improved chances to win, Nurse has also filled a leadership role with his junior team. At a junior level at least, Nurse is a well-rounded player capable of strong play in all areas of the ice. This is evident in the choices of the Sault Ste. Marie coaching staff to match Nurse against McDavid during the OHL playoffs. Though Nurse performed well against McDavid, ultimately his team was knocked out of the playoffs by the Otters.
At the World Juniors tournament, Nurse managed one point and eight PIMs in 7 games. He also collected the player of the game award once and was one of Canada's top three players. For Nurse, World Juniors were most definitely an opportunity to show strong defensive play and shut down some of the world's best offensive talent. Nurse also headed to the AHL to join the Oklahoma City Barons during their playoff run after being knocked out of the OHL playoffs. Nurse played in four games and managed an impressive four assists. Though Nurse seems to be primarily a defensively minded player, he is more than capable of providing secondary offense when required. Nurse has all the component parts to become a force on the Oilers blue line.
The developmental camp, ending in the Billy Moores Cup, was yet another chance for Nurse to show Oilers management (and fans) his capabilities. Nurse was excellent throughout the camp, only being outshone by the presence of Connor McDavid. Nurse can hardly be faulted for getting lost in the circus that has engulfed McDavid since long before his draft.
What Nurse showed those watching was a big-bodied player who could move well (both the puck and himself) and wasn't afraid of physical confrontation. Nurse is certainly look to make the Oilers roster out of camp and can be expected to show similar intensity and skill in the upcoming training camp. Whether or not Nurse looks as dominant as he did in development camp will be a key factor in if Nurse makes the Oilers out of camp or spends some time in the AHL.
Though some believe Nurse will make the Oilers roster this year, at this point, it is more likely that Nurse will spend some time in the AHL. Though Nurse has looked strong so far in competition, he has not played against NHL-calibre players for the most part, only prospects. There may be merit in allowing Nurse to develop one step at a time instead of throwing him in the proverbial deep end and hoping his confidence survives. Whether Nurse starts in the NHL or the AHL may be difficult to assess currently, but the fact Nurse will make an impact in the near future seems to be a foregone conclusion. It may not be at the start of this season, but Oilers fans should expect to see their most highly touted defensive prospect in Oilers colours on a permanent basis soon.