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Settling Nurse Down

Edmonton Oilers v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Following the first period of Thursday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, Oilers play-by-play commentator Jack Michaels and his co-host Bob Stauffer discussed the team’s struggles, focusing on the poor play of Darnell Nurse. The 23-year old defenceman had been on the ice for three of the four goals against in the first period, having made some poor reads and decisions with the puck in his own zone. What was interesting was that both commentators suggested that Nurse was struggling because of the absence of Kris Russell who has been Nurse’s most common defensive partner this season.

It may sound a little strange considering Russell has historically been a drag on his teammates offensive numbers, consistently posting poor on-ice shot share numbers relative to his team. But this season, it does appear that Nurse is in fact posting better on-ice numbers with Russell as his partner than without him.

Before digging into the numbers, it’s worth mentioning that the warning signs of Nurse’s individual struggles were apparent early in the 2018-19 season and have continued through the first 37 games. Among regular Oilers defencemen this season (those who have played at least 100 minutes), Nurse has the lowest on-ice goals-for percentage at even-strength (5v5) with 43.10% - a goal differential of -8 (25 GF, 33 GA). The team’s possession numbers as well as their share of unblocked shot attempts (a proxy for shot quality) have also been at their lowest this season when Nurse is on the ice - a 47.44% Corsi For percentage and 46.94% Fenwick For percentage.

Considering that Nurse is one of the team leaders in total ice time and ice time per game, it should be an area of concern for management. Especially when the early season numbers indicated that he’s been a significant drag on McDavid and the Oilers star player’s ability to impact on-ice scoring and shooting rates.

The first thought might be that Russell is the one dragging Nurse’s on-ice numbers and productivity down, but that has not been the case this season.

The duo have played 410 minutes together at even-strength this season, posting a goal share of 47.83%, a -1 goal differential (11 GF, 12 GA). When Nurse has been away from Russell, his on-ice goal share drops to 40.00%, a -7 goal differential (14 GF, 21 GA). Russell on the other hand sees his on-ice goal-share to 77.78%, a +5 goal differential (7 GF, 2 GA). Right there you can see why it can be perceived that Russell is a calming influence on Nurse.

Nurse and Russell as a tandem haven’t been strong possession-wise with the team quite often getting out-shot and out-chanced when they’re on the ice together. What’s interesting is that Nurse’s on-ice shot-share numbers take a hit without Russell, which includes Corsi For% (i.e. shot attempts that are used as proxy for possession), Fenwick For% (i.e., unblocked shot attempts that are used as a proxy for shot quality), Scoring Chances For% and High Danger Shot Attempts For%.

What we see here is that while both Nurse and Russell see a slight drop in their on-ice possession numbers (CF%) when away from each other, it’s Nurse who sees a significant drop in his on-ice share of unblocked shot attempts away from Russell. In fact, when Nurse is deployed without Russell, the team allows four more unblocked shot attempts against per hour, five more scoring chances against per hour and four more high danger shot attempts against per hour. Russell on the other hand sees his on-ice rate of shot attempts and scoring chances against improve slightly when away from Nurse.

Definitely not the numbers I was expecting from Nurse heading into this season and I can’t imagine the team being thrilled with the results from one of their core players. The fact that Nurse has struggled all season and especially now without Russell and Klefbom in the lineup should be a wake-up call for the Oilers that the defensive depth built by the current management regime has not been good enough.

Data: Natural Stat Trick