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Peak Nurse

As the Edmonton Oilers prepare for what will be another busy off-season for Ken Holland and company, the play of Darnell Nurse may turn out to be among the most critical pieces of this puzzle.

Colorado Avalanche v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

When it comes to the Edmonton Oilers roster, you would be hard-pressed to find a player who splits the fan base more than Darnell Nurse. By no means is he the perfect defenceman and his contract is about to officially become a talking point from here on out. Fair or not, it’s the reality of the situation and his ability to excel under the scrutiny that will come his way, is of extreme importance.

On the surface, the most obvious holes that need plugging on this Oilers ship are obvious. Priority number one remains goaltending. Figuring out what direction to go in filling out their blueline is next. Finding a player or two who can contribute in an impactful way inside the top nine and to top it all off, shedding as much dead money off the books as possible prior to the start of next season.

There is plenty of work to be done but from an internal point of view, how Nurse deals with things might just trump all else. In most cases, the pressure an athlete feels is something that is created by circumstance. It tends to come from outside sources (contract, media, fans, etc.…) and more importantly, from internal expectation.

While the noise coming from others cannot be controlled, the internal piece of the equation certainly can and that is what Nurse needs to find a way to rein in. If there is a player on this team who routinely goes out of his way to do more than he should, I’m not sure who it would be. It is that drive and want to help this team win, that led to him playing three rounds worth playoff hockey with a torn hip flexor.

No one could ever question the 27-year old’s so-called compete level and want to win. The guy is an incredible athlete, with a ridiculous pain tolerance, who gives every ounce of what he has to this team on nightly basis. Problem being, moving forward, that isn’t the Nurse this group needs to get to where it ultimately wants to go.

It’s human nature to want to go out and quiet critics who are saying he is not $9M+ defenceman. However, we are now seven seasons into his career and the “taking on more than you can handle” approach does not work. Like it or not, Nurse fancying himself as the kind of player he isn’t, has hurt this team and it cannot continue to happen.

Again, much of that was forced upon him due to circumstance (Oscar Klefbom suffering a career-ending shoulder injury) and the organization doing a poor job of surrounding him with better players to help lessen the load. Make no mistake, he hasn’t had an easy go of things but in the here and now, that means about as much as going out and trying to justify his cap hit.

If this club’s aforementioned shortcomings can be addressed in a meaningful way by Ken Holland during the off-season, this Oilers team will have a chance to do some damage as early as next season. Having a controlled, less ambitious and focused Nurse would go a long way in helping that happen but that piece is solely on the player.

Yes, the blueline won’t be perfect but the addition of Philip Broberg instantly kicks-up the skill level of the collective a notch, as does Evan Bouchard having a full season in the NHL under his belt. Add in the re-signing of a Brett Kulak or said useful replacement and Edmonton’s backend could look a whole lot better…with a no. 1 defenceman who is poised and in control of what’s in front of him.

We have seen Nurse be that guy in the past but with far too great a frequency, we have seen the opposite end of the spectrum. He is the one who gets running around in his own end and routinely pulled out of position, leaving opposing players open in the slot. With how often it happens, one can’t help but question his on-ice ability to read plays. Yet on some nights, he does it to perfection.

In my mind, Nurse has the necessary tools to be a calming influence in the defensive zone. If he allows himself to be that kind of player the rest should take care of itself. While he is among the very best skating defencemen in the game, Darnell has to understand he is not Cale Makar and isn’t capable of being that two-way offensive threat.

At some point, every player has to accept who and what they are at this level and for me, Nurse has yet to have that a-ha moment. Until he does, the chaos in his game will remain and the Oilers are nowhere near good enough to overcome it. If winning the Stanley Cup is what he is after, that moment has to come and the sooner it does, the better off he and his teammates will be.