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What to do with Darnell Nurse?

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A look into Nurse's season thus far and how he compares to his peers.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the bright spots on defence this season has been the growth and development of the younger players, which includes Oscar Klefbom, Brandon Davidson and Darnell Nurse.  Add in players like Griffin Reinhart, Jordan Oesterle and Dillon Simpson, who continue their development at the AHL level, and the Oilers appear to have a pretty decent future on the blueline.

While Klefbom has established himself as a legitimate top pairing defenceman and Davidson has surpassed expectations playing predominantly bottom pairing minutes, Nurse has struggled this season. He's playing a significant amount of minutes, including an extended stint on the top pairing with Andrej Sekera, and typically going up against the other team's top players. While some may argue that this is great for Nurse's development, he's posting some alarming underlying numbers that indicate he might be in over his head.

Watching Nurse, it's obvious he's a rookie. He's had some good nights where he's able to box out forwards, challenge opponents in puck battles and use his reach to break up plays. But he's also struggled against faster players and has been caught out of position at times. These are of course things that I've seen, so a glance at the full set of data will give us a better sense of what kind of player Nurse has been this season.

Below is a high level summary of the Oilers defencemen at even-strength who have played more than 12 games this season. Included are points/60 as well as each players Corsi For, Scoring Chances For and Goals For percentage relative to their teammates (Source: War on Ice)

Name Games TOI/Gm P/60 CF% Rel SCF% Rel GF% Rel ZSO% Rel Corsi Comp%
D. Nurse 32 18.22 0.41 -6.84 -4.02 -0.09 -3.2 50.39
A. Sekera 40 17.03 0.44 -3.82 -1.05 -4.92 -3.68 50.66
O. Klefbom 30 16.6 1.08 3.47 3.61 2.56 -3.99 51.07
J. Schultz 27 16.04 0.28 2.71 1.01 -3.52 -2.47 50.33
E. Gryba 36 15.52 0.43 -0.16 -1.08 5.04 7.36 50.41
B. Davidson 26 15.23 0.61 3.53 2.61 8.56 3.18 50.35
M. Fayne 29 14.73 0.14 1.48 -1.15 0.64 -4.3 51.15

Nurse has dressed in 32 games since being recalled by the Oilers from Bakersfield on October 26th and had lead the team in average ice time since. Until recently, he'd been on the top line with Andrej Sekera, taking on a the mid level to high end competition. Over the past five games, Nurse has been paired with Justin Schultz, with Sekera being paired with either Fayne or Davidson (Source: Natural Stat Trick). What's most surprising is the fact that Nurse has been getting regular ice time regardless of the score.

What we can glean from the table above is that the Oilers get a lower proportion of shot attempts and scoring chances when Nurse is on the ice at even-strength. The team overall is a bad possession team this season but does slightly better when Nurse is on the bench. This is definitely concerning when you consider how much ice time Nurse receives and his deployment regardless of score state.

We know from Jonathan Willis' work that Nurse has been a drag on Sekera, his most common defence partner this season. But how has Nurse's impacted his most common linemates on offence? Below is a summary of the players Nurse has played at least 100 minutes with at even-strength this season (Source: Hockey Analysis).

Again some troubling numbers that should have the attention of Oilers management team and coaching staff. Again, we know that the Oilers are dreadul this season when it comes to possession. But here we see that most of the forwards are slightly better possession-wise away from Nurse. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in particular, who has played a lot of heavy minutes against the oppositions top lines, does significantly better away from Nurse.

Comparables

I also wanted to see how other 20 year old defencemen have done over the past five seasons to see how Nurse measures up. Since 2010/11, there have been 38 20-year old defencemen that have dressed for more than 30 games in a season. On average, they received about 16 minutes of ice time at even-strength. Among this group, Nurse ranks third in average time-on-ice per game only behind Jonas Brodin and Rasmus Ristolainen. The rest of the list includes some very good talent and a lot of familiar names like Jared Spurgeon, Travis Hamonic and Alex Pietrangelo. But what's somewhat concerning is that compared to the other 20 year olds, Nurse has the worst relative Corsi For% Rel (-6.84) and the third worst Scoring Chances For% Rel (-4.02). Nurse still has half of a season to improve on this, and it'll be worth keeping an eye going forward. A sortable table with all of the players can be found in Appendix A.

Thoughts

The key message here isn't that Nurse is any sort of bust that needs to be sent away for good. The fact is he's 20 years old and still has the potential to be a number one defenceman for the Oilers.

The problem is that the Oilers chose to start the season with a weak defence core when plenty of options were available in free agency. On his own merit, Nurse moved ahead of players like Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference to secure regular minutes on the blueline, and that should not be overlooked. The issue is that the Oilers now have a prospect playing heavy minutes when he would  be better served in a reduced role with the Oilers or playing top line minutes at the AHL level.

I do value Nurse very highly as a prospect and expect him to be one of the real drivers for the Oilers moving forward. Here at the C&B, we ranked him at fifth on our summer list of Top 25 Players Under 25 and remain confident that he'll be a solid NHL player. His numbers in the OHL indicate that he'll have a bright future, with some excellent players being deemed as comparables by both Derek Zona and Scott Reynolds. The pressure should now be on the Oilers management group to find the right players this coming off-season that could reduce the workload for Nurse and provide support  to ensure the young man has success.

Appendix A: 20 year old defencemen since the 2010-11 season that have played at least 30 games in a season (Source: War on Ice).

Name Team Season Games TOI/Gm P/60 CF%Rel SCF%Rel GF%Rel Corsi Comp%
Brodin MIN 2013/14 79 18.60 0.41 -3.17 -1.14 -9.74 50.08
Ristolainen BUF 2015/16 39 18.44 1.17 -3.72 -3.71 4.58 51.11
Nurse EDM 2015/16 32 18.22 0.41 -6.84 -4.02 -0.09 50.39
Hedman T.B 2011/12 61 17.98 0.82 1.31 3.17 3.05 50.11
Doughty L.A 2010/11 76 17.95 0.97 4.02 4.75 9.81 49.99
Schenn TOR 2010/11 82 17.83 0.86 0.83 1.01 0.52 49.99
Severson N.J 2014/15 51 17.55 0.54 2.25 -1.62 -5.89 50.11
Leddy CHI 2011/12 82 17.50 1.00 0.48 0.02 -5.38 50.05
Karlsson OTT 2010/11 75 17.41 0.83 2.02 0.98 -2.06 50.02
Bogosian ATL 2010/11 70 17.35 0.49 -4.03 -3.81 -16.22 50.17
Ekman-Larsson PHX 2011/12 82 17.32 0.93 2.78 3.12 -1.54 49.85
Faulk CAR 2012/13 38 17.21 0.73 -2.34 -3.13 -3.15 49.57
Lindholm ANA 2014/15 78 17.00 1.13 0.72 0.29 11.84 50.04
Trouba WPG 2014/15 65 16.93 0.60 2.49 0.13 -5.67 50.16
Kulikov FLA 2011/12 58 16.88 0.98 -1.52 -0.02 3.70 49.82
Carlson WSH 2010/11 81 16.74 1.06 2.07 0.10 7.88 50.13
Fowler ANA 2012/13 37 16.49 0.49 -2.71 -5.73 -3.82 49.63
Rielly TOR 2014/15 81 16.35 0.77 2.96 3.17 0.51 49.98
Pietrangelo STL 2010/11 79 16.18 1.22 3.14 2.48 11.74 49.96
Hamonic NYI 2010/11 61 16.13 1.04 3.79 3.53 1.01 50.19
Pesce CAR 2015/16 33 16.10 0.68 0.58 3.46 -8.86 49.99
Gudbranson FLA 2012/13 32 15.81 0.24 -3.56 -2.43 -20.24 49.61
Hamilton BOS 2013/14 64 15.81 1.01 3.58 4.60 5.64 49.92
Myers BUF 2010/11 80 15.69 0.91 4.44 3.48 -1.76 49.96
Orlov WSH 2011/12 60 15.14 0.99 2.25 0.65 2.72 49.55
Murphy CAR 2013/14 48 14.86 0.67 -0.86 -1.90 -4.83 49.51
Cowen OTT 2011/12 82 14.80 0.59 -0.59 -2.73 -6.90 49.75
Jones NSH 2015/16 39 14.75 0.73 5.38 -0.36 -7.01 50.15
Ceci OTT 2014/15 81 14.74 0.75 -1.75 -2.86 -6.81 49.91
Del.Zotto NYR 2010/11 47 14.66 0.35 2.01 1.55 -2.94 49.84
Moore CBJ 2011/12 67 13.97 0.38 -3.99 -6.70 -15.62 50.02
Pouliot PIT 2014/15 34 13.96 0.38 0.31 -0.23 -16.98 50.10
Sbisa ANA 2010/11 68 13.96 0.51 -3.70 -6.36 -13.92 49.70
Elliott COL 2011/12 39 13.79 1.00 5.00 2.64 4.89 49.28
Savard CBJ 2011/12 31 13.66 0.71 2.44 1.92 13.17 49.69
Spurgeon MIN 2010/11 53 12.75 0.44 2.53 3.89 0.52 49.95
Dumba MIN 2014/15 58 12.72 0.73 2.13 0.38 1.55 49.31
Ellis NSH 2011/12 32 12.65 0.89 4.92 3.28 5.00 50.08