After 16 games, 21-year old defenceman Darnell Nurse is averaging just over 17 minutes of ice time per game, fifth among the seven defencemen who have played at least 100 minutes this season. He currently leads the Oilers in ice time on the penalty kill, where he's been paired with Eric Gryba for the most part. He's second among defencemen with four points, including a fantastic goal scored at the Heritage Classic in Winnipeg.
The Oilers appear to have learned their lesson from last season as they are not deploying Nurse against the other teams top lines and are managing his ice time well. He started the season on the third pair with Gryba, but has seen his ice time steadily increase, along with the level of competition, after Kris Russell was injured. The main reason for this is that Sekera, who was paired with Russell, is now skating with young Matt Benning who the team is carefully sheltering with less ice time and against the other teams secondary forwards. This has pushed Nurse and Gryba up to more of a second pairing, while Sekera and Benning are deployed as a third pairing (Source: Hockey Viz)
Over the course of the season, Nurse has shown signs of progress, especially on the offensive side of the game. He's skating with the puck more, he's jumping in on plays more frequently and he's been quite effective at getting his shots on net. Below is each defencemen's rate of individual unblocked shot attempts, with young Nurse leading the way at 5v5, just slightly ahead of Klefbom. (Source: Hockey Analysis)
While Nurse's offence has improved, it's been his play in his own zone that's somewhat concerning. Below are the Oilers defencemen when it comes to unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick) against at 5v5. I've included the overall rate of shot attempts against (FA/60) as well as the relative-to-teammates number.
|Player Name||GP||TOI||FA/60||FA/60 RelTM|
As a team, the Oilers allow 39.5 unblocked shot attempts per hour at 5v5, ranking them 15th in the league. The good news here is that the Oilers are also generating 41.2 unblocked shot attempts, 9th best in the league, and are currently getting 51% of the total shot attempts (10th overall). Focusing on the shot attempts against, we see in the table above that young Benning has done well in his sheltered role, where he sees less of the top lines and gets more offensve zone starts. The team sees fewer shot attempts against when he steps on the ice with Sekera. On the other hand, when Nurse is on the ice, the rate of shot attempts against jumps up to 43.16 (+5.04 relative to teammates), which you wouldn't expect considering he's been playing further down the lineup for most of the season.
The other issue for Nurse is how often the opposition is able to generate high danger shot attempts, which are the ones from the slot, in front of the goal. The Oilers have done very well in generating their own high danger shot attempts, ranking 4th in the league, thanks in large part to McDavid. But when it comes to these high danger shot attempts against, the Oilers are one of the worst teams in the league allowing 12.49 per hour. With Nurse on the ice, the club allows around that much (12.9 per hour), which again should be lower considering Nurse hasn't been playing the top competition on a regular basis. (Source: Natural Stat Trick) The typical narrative around this player is that he's tough to play against, and has a mean-streak. But we're still waiting for these attributes to influence on-ice play, especially in the defensive side of the game.
Lastly, Nurse's performance on the penalty kill has not been good this season, with Talbot's strong performance overshadowing the issues with the player. The club ranks 4th in the league when it comes to killing penalties, but as I wrote about last week, these results are not sustainable considering the high volume of unblocked shot attempts they currently allow, 76.3 per hour. And this number jumps up significantly to 94.74 (+17.74 relative to teammates) when young Nurse is on the ice. Talbot has absolutely bailed out this weak penalty kill, holding one of the best save percentages shorthanded. Based on the first 16 games, the Oilers defencemen who are impacting the shot metrics in a positive way on the penalty kill are Sekera, Gryba and Klefbom.
|Player Name||TOI||FA60||FA60 RelTM|
Nurse is currently the team leader in ice time shorthanded, which is odd considering the price the Oilers paid for Larsson, who has more experience and a reputation for being a shut-down type. I expect Larsson to get more ice time, and hopefully soon as Nurse hasn't shown well on the penalty kill thus far.
Nurse has definitely improved from last season, where he struggled as the team failed to play the young prospect at the appropriate level. Nurse has the tools to be a good defenceman, who we can hope has a long NHL career. The issue again comes back to how the team is utilizing him and what their expectations are of the player. Ideally, the Oilers should have signed enough good, reliable defencemen this off-season so that Nurse could continue his development in Bakersfield and get ample playing time in different game situations. The Oilers chose to keep him in Edmonton and did do the right thing this season by playing him on the third pairing. The problem is that injuries have hit, with Davidson, Fayne and Russell out of the lineup, pushing Nurse up the depth chart. And the Oilers continue to roll him out on the penalty kill, which is not yet his strong suit. The best case scenario for Nurse is that the injured players return, which will allow the coaching staff to deploy him on the third pair. The other scenario that could benefit Nurse is some time on the power play, as his 5v5 play this season and last season indicates that he's a volume shooter that can get the puck on net. Whatever the Oilers decide to do with Nurse going forward, they have to keep his development in mind and ensure that he's in a situation to succeed.