There is a general thought among Oil Country that management, in particular past management, has been poor at developing prospects and has been rushing them to the NHL for years. While an argument can be with respect to the forwards, the Oilers have generally offered their defence prospects more development time and this includes Darnell Nurse who I believe has been brought along quite well by the organization. Nurse is a unique mix of elite skating ability, size, skill and aggressiveness and the organization is banking on this player being a mainstay in the top 4 of the defence for the next decade.
After being drafted 8th overall in 2013, Nurse was allowed to develop back in junior, with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, for two full seasons which included a staring performance for the Gold Medal winning Team Canada at the World Junior Championships during the 2014/15 season. Nurse was named player of the game in the gold medal game and one of the top 3 players for the tournament – both very well earned considering Nurse wasn’t on the ice for a single goal against at even strength, where he logged a lot of minutes. Nurse finished his junior career battling against future teammate Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the third round of the 2015 OHL playoffs and, once again, played a starring role as he was hard- matched against McDavid and battled him hard throughout the series being as effective as one could hope for against the generational talent. His defensive potential was on full display.
Nurse turned pro for the 2015/16 season and, as expected for a rookie pro d-man, was assigned to Bakersfield in the American Hockey League, however his AHL career was short-lived and he was called up to the NHL after only 9 games when injuries hit the Oilers. Upon being called up, Nurse started off the year strong on the 3rd pairing, however, as the year progressed and injuries piled up to the D-core, Nurse was asked to play up the lineup and, for a large portion of the year, he was actually playing top pairing minutes with Andrei Sekera (as well as tough minutes with Justin Schultz). Given the circumstances, notwithstanding Nurse’s possession and goal share metrics were negative (and negative relative to his teammates), this was largely a function of playing very though minutes as a rookie on a defensive group ravaged by injury. Nurse had a solid rookie season but it was clear that his defensive zone coverage and puck transition skills clearly were still developing, not surprising for a rookie defenceman.
Nurse’s development took another step forward in 2016/17 as he was allowed to play 3rd pairing minutes for most of the year with Matt Benning and veteran Eric Gryba. Unfortunately, Nurse’s season was derailed on December 1 as he suffered a broken bone and ligament damage in his ankle which required surgery and he missed the better part of 3 months. Nurse was back for the playoff run and, although he only had 2 points in 13 playoff games, he and Matt Benning formed a very good third pairing that sawed off the goal share battle at evens and all of Nurse’s numbers were positive relative to his teammates.
Nurse parlayed the strong playoff performance into a very good 2017/18 seasons where, by all accounts, he took a very large step forward and was one of only a few bright spots in a very disappointing season for the team.
Prior to the 2017/18 season, Nurse struggled to transition the puck both by pass and by skating and when he did successfully move the puck forward by skating it, he was lost in the offensive zone and was rarely able to make a solid play. In 2017/18, while Nurse still struggled to transition the puck via the pass, he became quite adept at moving it forward by skating and was able to make positive plays with the puck in the offensive zone with more regularity.
Nurse’s responsibility increased throughout the season as Oscar Klefbom struggled on the ice battling through injury and Andrei Sekera was recovering from knee surgery for most of the season. Unlike the past, Nurse earned the extra ice time on merit and played top pairing minutes for a large portion of the season.
Nurse formed a solid first pairing with Adam Larsson and was able to tread water when Larsson was out of the lineup and Nurse was playing top pairing minutes with Kris Russell on his off-side, not an ideal situation. When Nurse and Larsson were on the ice together, the team scored 56.9% of the goals (and the team scored only 44.9% of the goals when they were both off the ice). Nurse also fared well without Larsson with a 53.7% goal share (Larsson did not fare nearly as well without Nurse, largely a result of Klefbom’s struggle with injury).
It should also be noted that Nurse seems to have a very positive effect on Connor McDavid – when they were on the ice together at 5 on 5, the team had 71% of the goals in 540 minutes. When McDavid was on the ice without Nurse, this dropped to 50% of the goals in 1000 minutes. These are large enough sample sizes to show that this must be explored further by the coaching staff.
Nurse ended up 19th in the entire league in even strength time on ice among d-men playing 19:32 at evens per game and added an extra 2:14 per game on the penalty kill. He finished the season plus 15 on a team that had an overall negative goal differential (second on the team to Connor McDavid).
Nurse also took a step forward with his offense – while he ended up with a seemingly pedestrian 26 points, it should be noted that, with minimal power play time, all 26 points were scored at even strength. Nurse finished the season tied with Colton Parayko for 34th in the league in even strength points, one behind the likes of Zach Werenski, Aaron Ekblad, Mark Giordano, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan Suter and Morgan Riley. Nurse only played 30 seconds per game on the PP and most of those minutes were on the 2nd unit near the end of the season on a league-worst power play that had lost its confidence entirely.
Overall, Nurse was one of the few bright spots in a very tough season. He took a huge step forward and solidified himself as a top 4 d-man and, to some, showed that he still has top pairing potential.
With Oscar Klefbom 100% healthy coming into the upcoming season, I believe Klefbom will be reunited with Adam Larsson and Nurse will be asked to anchor an important second pairing with either Matt Benning or Kris Russell (again on his off-side). Nurse will be leaned on as the primary defenceman on the pairing and his ability to anchor the pairing in tough minutes will go a long way to determining the success of the season.
For this up and coming season, I look for Nurse to further develop his transition game. He has become a solid puck mover, however, he defaults to transitioning the puck by skating it which is understandable given how strong a skater he is. With that said, we all know that its always more effective to transition the puck via the pass and I look for Nurse to take a step forward in that area. I also look for Nurse to earn himself some power play time this season as well as become more consistent with making plays in the offensive zone. If there is one knock on Nurse, it would have to be his offensive hockey IQ and ability to distribute the puck. He took a step forward last season in that regard but there is more room to grow.