Want to retain Nurse? Go Big Game hunting on defense

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

"Darnell Nurse is a UFA at the end of next year and we will not be going big game hunting for defensemen" – Ken Holland

One of the aspects of game theory is added value. Added value of a player is the total value of a game with the player minus the value of the game without the player. Basically it says that the amount by which a player raises the value of a game is his/her added value. For example: If the buy in for a poker game is 100 dollars, the added value of each player joining the game is 100 dollars. While the concept is simple enough to grasp, most of the games we play in our lives don't necessarily have an objective measure to them or are they additive as in a game of poker. We can subjectively come up with criteria to assign objective numbers, but it’s not cut and dry.

Let’s establish our game. All games have the following basic components: players, strategies, payoffs, and rules.

Game: Get Darnel Nurse signed to a contract extension in the summer of 2022.

Players: Ken Holland and Darnel Nurse

Payoffs: For Ken - A reasonable term contract with lowest possible cap hit. For Nurse - A long term contract with the highest possible cap hit

Rules: The CBA which gives us comprehensive and clear rules in terms of number of players allowed on the roster and the maximum total cap hit of a team.

Nurse’s position:

This article is not about how good Darnel Nurse actually is (I will let smarter people than me debate it out). What is relevant here is Nurse’s perceived value and what he brings to this hockey organization. He is highly rated not only in the eyes of many fans but also the management and the league as evidenced by his Norris votes. What further enhances his value is the defensive depth of the oiler’s roster.

As it currently stands our defence is:

Nurse – Bear

X – X

Keith – Bouchard

Bear is still developing, Bouchard is a rookie(ish) and if Keith is able to cover his salary (not his cap hit) with his play, we will have a useful player. Bear is the best of the bunch but doesn’t have that brand value which Nurse enjoys. Holland is believed to be shopping in the average aisle for defensemen this summer and we can safely say that no one on the roster or in the system can replace the value of Nurse should he decide to leave.

Ken Holland:

Oilers have cap space as currency but the defence he has constructed so far looks to be worse than what it was last year. Things can be salvaged if he signs Savard on the right and someone like Forbort or McCabe on the left. However, neither player can replace Nurse and hence they change nothing in the added value which Nurse brings to the franchise. Furthermore, Holland loves Nurse as a player and is cognizant of the defensive depth which Edmonton has. Holland also knows that if the club doesn’t improve its standings in playoffs McDavid and Draisaitl may not be as patient moving forward.

Relative power:

What this shows is Nurse has an extremely high added value. He knows that Holland can’t replace him internally and has shown no desire to look outside. Nurse leaving in the FA leaving will further reduce Holland’s negotiation power with other parties be it FA or trade partners. Furthermore, Holland will have to explain to McDavid and Draisaitl why he didn’t think Nurse was worth the contract he was seeking. Hence all power rests in the hands of Nurse. There is no reason for him to not leverage it in the negotiations.

What can Holland do?

Either Holland ends up paying closer to what Nurse is asking or risk losing him. However, there is something else he can do. He can reduce Nurse’s added value and alter the relative power by signing Hamilton this season.


Hamilton is a better offensive defenseman than Nurse. We can get into raw stats, advanced stats, player charts etc etc but let’s just keep it simple. Furthermore, he is at least as good as Nurse is defensively. That Hamilton is a RHD, a rarer commodity, makes him even more attractive.

If Holland signs Hamilton, he completely weakens Nurse’s position. He will have now found a defenseman who is capable of doing almost everything Nurse does and arguably better. He has also subconsciously put a cap on Nurse’s contract with Hamilton being a close superior comparable. Oilers will undoubtedly find tremendous success throughout the season with Nurse anchoring one pair and Hamilton another. The onus will now be on Nurse to explain to his buddies i.e., 97 and 29, why he values that extra million than winning the cup with them. The icing on the cake is that Holland will have insulated the club from a massive drop off should Nurse chooses to leave. Having Hamilton not only reduces the added value of Nurse but also increases the overall value of the team.

Peter Chiarelli once made this mistake of thinking Hall or Lucic even though we had space to have them both. Holland too is making the same mistake. It isn’t Hamilton or Nurse. Having Hamilton on the team not only complements Nurse but also makes staying a lot more attractive. Nurse already makes 5.6 a year. Next year Holland would only need to dump Kassian to make the dollars work. If I could, I would appeal to Holland to reconsider his dismissal of the idea of big game hunting on defense.

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