Is Darnell Nurse’s improved defensive game his ticket to the NHL?

Jonathan Willis
March 28 2014 07:00AM

Darnell Nurse

There’s been virtually nothing but praise for Darnell Nurse’s potential as a defenceman, but the key word in that line is "potential."

Listed at 6’4”, 193 pounds, Nurse has the kind of frame every team looks for in its defencemen. He plays like a big man too, with scouts and penalty minute totals alike making it clear he plays an aggressive physical game. Just for good measure, he puts up strong offensive numbers.

But for all of that raw talent, there have been concerns about his overall game. He was omitted from this year’s Canadian World Junior team, with head scout Ryan Jankowski commenting that Nurse was one of the team’s “difficult decisions” but that “the thing to remember is that it's not an all-star team.”

It was a much-criticized decision, particularly after Canada disappointed in the tournament, but it’s always difficult to evaluate defencemen from afar to know exactly what the Canadian management group was seeing on the ice.

There have been some interesting comments made in recent days about the player that are suggestive, though.

Here’s Neate Sager, who covers junior hockey for Yahoo!:

What's been the Soo's X factors in regaining home-ice advantage? Two things — having the uniquely skilled Darnell Nurse on defence and a careful approach to finding older forwards to take on the unsung but vital role of being complementary scorers. Nurse has had five points during the Soo's two wins, giving the Edmonton Oilers first-rounder his first back-to-back multi-point outings all season. Please don't try to make a post-hoc argument that this proves he should have been on Team Canada over, say, Owen Sound's Chris Bigras, since it deprives Nurse of credit for the improvements he's made in the past three months.

Nurse himself talked to Bob Stauffer of Oilers Now on Thursday (the audio is here), and Sager’s comment meshes nicely with the player’s answer on a question about improvements he’s made this season:

Probably the biggest thing going into this season that I wanted to work on was my defensive play and knowing the right time to go and the right time to stay back, and it’s really been night and day from the beginning of the season to now.

(emphasis added)

Nurse also said he couldn’t really think of a week he went through without the Oilers being in contact with him, letting him know what they wanted him to work on. Based on Sault St. Marie general manager Kyle Dubas’ comments to the Hamilton Spectator back in January – for those who don’t want to read the whole thing, he said that Edmonton wanted Nurse to work on protecting the centre of the ice more – Nurse’s junior team has also been reasonably dialed into the process.

It’s a double-edged sword, because on the one hand massive improvement is good news, but on the other hand it means the starting point was far enough back that the massive improvement was necessary in the first place. 

StanWinstonTRex

Given Nurse’s age that’s understandable (he’s two years younger than Jurassic Park) but it’s a good reminder on just how long the road is from ‘seventh overall pick’ to ‘the savior Edmonton’s blue line clearly needs.’

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 28 2014, 11:34AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Regarding Nurse and the NHL next year, the nice thing is that the Oilers have the chance to give him a cameo - just like the Blues did with Pietrangelo.

I sort of think that by necessity there will be a top-seven spot more or less open for a young player. Edmonton could give Nurse nine games in the role and then decide whether they want him or Klefbom or Fedun or whoever in it.

What a wonderful fiction this is. Lumping Darnell in with the Pietrangelo types. Aren't we getting ahead of ourselves? Things are very different for the Blues, compared to our cellar dwelling Oilers.

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#52 SlaveLake
March 28 2014, 11:34AM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

Unless lightning strikes (Yandle,Myers type deal) this kind of scenario would conform with Managements "rebuild from within" blueprint sold to the fans 5 yrs ago.

I hate to say it. But what other choice is there other than "rebuild from within". How many free agents (good ones) are going to sign here with the Oilers massively sucking and with Dallas Eakins as coach ? None.

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#53 Bucknuck
March 28 2014, 11:36AM
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The thing about the "double edged sword" that strikes me as funny is that even with all those warts, Nurse still looked like the best defender on the team in training camp.

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#54 blainer
March 28 2014, 11:37AM
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To be more clear. What I am saying is there are players who can make the jump to NHL 1 year after the draft For every Trouba there is a Weber or for every O.E.L(although he did play 15 games in the minors first) there is a pietrangelo.Some players can make it sooner. I believe Nurse is in that category. If I am wrong and I could be, than you send him back. But if you are MacT next year and you start the year with a record of 7-0-2 and nurse has seven points with a corsi of 53% and is a plus 6 do you send him down? That would be tough decision.

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#55 SlaveLake
March 28 2014, 11:39AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Regarding Nurse and the NHL next year, the nice thing is that the Oilers have the chance to give him a cameo - just like the Blues did with Pietrangelo.

I sort of think that by necessity there will be a top-seven spot more or less open for a young player. Edmonton could give Nurse nine games in the role and then decide whether they want him or Klefbom or Fedun or whoever in it.

The problem with the cameo is... is he a top 6 defenseman on a good team.. or is he a top six defenseman on the Oilers.

What free agent defensemen are the Oilers going to get ? Another Ference? tops ?

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#56 SlaveLake
March 28 2014, 11:41AM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

What a wonderful fiction this is. Lumping Darnell in with the Pietrangelo types. Aren't we getting ahead of ourselves? Things are very different for the Blues, compared to our cellar dwelling Oilers.

Darnell better be Pietrangelo 2.0. Or the Oilers are in trouble. Well, more trouble.

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#57 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 28 2014, 11:44AM
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Zarny wrote:

Good grief, we've seen the disastrous results of the Oilers relying on 18-21 y/o kids over the last 3-4 years and you think the answer is to trade away one of them away as they are hitting their prime for another 18 y/o who won't be ready for 5 years?

That is utterly insane.

There is nothing special about Ekblad or Draisaitl or Bennett or Reinhart. Thinking that any of them will be some messiah is the same foolishness that led fans to delude themselves that 18-21 y/o Hall, Nuge, Yak and Eberle were going to save the team before any of them could grow facial hair.

If the Oilers trade Eberle or Yakupov it should be for a player like Couturier or Schenn or a player who is ready to contribute now not in 2019.

The way the Oilers have dealt with many priors 18-21 yr olds, has them squarely where they are now. It's not these kids fault they're on their own being the rest of the shelves are bare on this hockey club.

The Oilers only option is to keep bringing in these 18-21 yr olds till they become a group of 22-25 yr olds that'll help make their path less resistant. One top pairing blueliner deal won't fix this mess.

Just when we thought the losing was about to end. We've just realized we're really only half way there.

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#58 Shredder
March 28 2014, 11:44AM
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SlaveLake wrote:

The problem with the cameo is... is he a top 6 defenseman on a good team.. or is he a top six defenseman on the Oilers.

What free agent defensemen are the Oilers going to get ? Another Ference? tops ?

I'll take another Ference over Fraser.

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#59 RexHolez
March 28 2014, 11:45AM
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glad were starting to think about defence now... 4 years into this "rebuild" 4 more years these guys should be able to play.

FIRE KEVIN LOWE

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#60 pkam
March 28 2014, 11:47AM
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blainer wrote:

To be more clear. What I am saying is there are players who can make the jump to NHL 1 year after the draft For every Trouba there is a Weber or for every O.E.L(although he did play 15 games in the minors first) there is a pietrangelo.Some players can make it sooner. I believe Nurse is in that category. If I am wrong and I could be, than you send him back. But if you are MacT next year and you start the year with a record of 7-0-2 and nurse has seven points with a corsi of 53% and is a plus 6 do you send him down? That would be tough decision.

If Nurse can score 7 pts, 53% corsi, and +6 in 9 games, I am sure he will stay.

Not even one NHL defenders so far this year has that kind of stats. He will be ahead of Karlsson, Keith, Weber, Suban, Pietrangelo, Doughty.

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#61 Joe Mamma
March 28 2014, 11:59AM
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RexHolez wrote:

glad were starting to think about defence now... 4 years into this "rebuild" 4 more years these guys should be able to play.

FIRE KEVIN LOWE

Ok we get it bud, you want Lowe fired. Don't we all. But repeating it over and over for six months hasn't made it happen, and I somehow doubt that Katz is going to suddenly call a meeting to let everyone know that he's decided to fire KLowe because some guy on Oilersnation hasn't shut up about it since christmas. Maybe you could give it a rest and comment on the subject matter for once?

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#62 RexHolez
March 28 2014, 12:03PM
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remember when the media was telling us how long it took defenceman to develop, and how high draft pick defenceman rarely ever turn out to be the best dman and you should always take the forward? weird how that's all changed all of a sudden

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#63 Bucknuck
March 28 2014, 12:04PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

The way the Oilers have dealt with many priors 18-21 yr olds, has them squarely where they are now. It's not these kids fault they're on their own being the rest of the shelves are bare on this hockey club.

The Oilers only option is to keep bringing in these 18-21 yr olds till they become a group of 22-25 yr olds that'll help make their path less resistant. One top pairing blueliner deal won't fix this mess.

Just when we thought the losing was about to end. We've just realized we're really only half way there.

You're right. One top pairing D-man won't... but it would sure help.

I think the goaltending is fixed, and they've inserted some battlers in the bottom two lines.

If you get a decent shot from the point and 20+ minutes a night of reliable defending it would go a long way toward making this team competitive.

That and a more defensively reliable second line C. Gagner's time is up, IMO. He will be a great player someday, but not with this mix.

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#64 RexHolez
March 28 2014, 12:08PM
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Joe Mamma wrote:

Ok we get it bud, you want Lowe fired. Don't we all. But repeating it over and over for six months hasn't made it happen, and I somehow doubt that Katz is going to suddenly call a meeting to let everyone know that he's decided to fire KLowe because some guy on Oilersnation hasn't shut up about it since christmas. Maybe you could give it a rest and comment on the subject matter for once?

lol I havnt been spamming this site with fire kevin lowe since Christmas. I just started a couple days ago. other people have been slacking off lately so I thought i'd take over for awhile.

it just boggles my mind that he's still with this team, but i'll tone it down a little

FIRE KEVIN LOWE

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#67 DieHard
March 28 2014, 12:23PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Regarding Nurse and the NHL next year, the nice thing is that the Oilers have the chance to give him a cameo - just like the Blues did with Pietrangelo.

I sort of think that by necessity there will be a top-seven spot more or less open for a young player. Edmonton could give Nurse nine games in the role and then decide whether they want him or Klefbom or Fedun or whoever in it.

Do you think Simpson (if signed) could be in that mix as well.

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#68 The Last Big Bear
March 28 2014, 12:37PM
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RexHolez wrote:

remember when the media was telling us how long it took defenceman to develop, and how high draft pick defenceman rarely ever turn out to be the best dman and you should always take the forward? weird how that's all changed all of a sudden

Remember how people with common sense were saying:

"You already have a glut of toe-dragging teenaged goal scorers, why don't you trade your 1st overall pick and get a king's ransom in return? Do you know what first overall picks get traded for? You should have no problem landing a first pairing defenceman, which you need a million times worse than you need Yakupov."

The problem wasn't drafting forwards. The problem was keeping all the picks, using them all on forwards, not trading any of them, then throwing them ALL into the deep end in the NHL, ruining their development, making them look worse than they really are, and destroying their trade value.

Drafting forwards instead of defencemen was not the problem here.

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#69 S4H1
March 28 2014, 01:09PM
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RexHolez wrote:

glad were starting to think about defence now... 4 years into this "rebuild" 4 more years these guys should be able to play.

FIRE KEVIN LOWE

Top 100 picks on defensemen

2004: 44 R. Tesliuk

2005: 36 T. Chorney & 81 D. Syvret

2006: 45 J. Petry & 75 T. Peckham

2007: 15 A. Plante & L. Smid in trade

2008: N/A

2009: 71 T. Hesketh

2010: 46 M. Marincin & 91 J. Blain

2011: 19 O. Klefbom & 31 D. Musil & 92 D. Simpson

2012: 93 E. Gustafsson

2013: 7 D. Nurse

Many higher picks have been used on Defensemen in the last 10 years. The problem hasn't been a lack of care for the position, but a lack of development of the players taken. There are also the five big-name defensemen that have come here and failed for various reasons. (Pronger, Spacek, Souray, Visnovsky, Whitney). Kevin Lowe deserves so much criticism. Please don't waste time on things he DIDN'T do wrong.

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#70 Zarny
March 28 2014, 01:24PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

The way the Oilers have dealt with many priors 18-21 yr olds, has them squarely where they are now. It's not these kids fault they're on their own being the rest of the shelves are bare on this hockey club.

The Oilers only option is to keep bringing in these 18-21 yr olds till they become a group of 22-25 yr olds that'll help make their path less resistant. One top pairing blueliner deal won't fix this mess.

Just when we thought the losing was about to end. We've just realized we're really only half way there.

No, it isn't how the Oilers have dealt with the prior 18-21 y/o that has them where they are now. It's how the Oilers dealt with everyone but the 18-21 y/o that has them where they are now.

And no, the Oilers only option is not to keep bringing in 18-21 y/o. That is actually quite silly to say.

In 2010-11 Phi finished 3rd and lost the Cup final to Chi before trading Richards and Carter for Schenn, Simmonds, Voracek, Couturier and Nick Cousins. They dropped to 6th the following year and then to 20th. This year they are middle of the pack at 14th.

LA did the opposite. They traded their best prospect (Schenn), Simmonds, Jack Johnson and a 1st round pick for Richards and Carters who were both 26 and in their prime. They also won the Stanley Cup in 2012

The Oilers need to think like LA, not Phi. Contenders aren't built around 22-25 y/o. They are built around 24-29 y/o. The Oilers shouldn't draft Ekblad. They should trade the pick for whatever you think Ekblad will be in 5 years. They certainly should not trade Eberle or Yak to draft Draisaitl this year. If anything, they should trade Eberle or Yakupov for what Draisaitl will be in 5 years...like Couturier or Schenn.

Perhaps you thought the losing would end with 3 18-21 y/o draft picks. Most predictions had the Oilers about 5-6 wins better this year and missing the playoffs because the rebuild was only half way done. That's not actually a surprise.

And when you look at the facts that Col went from 29th last year to the playoffs this year, and that 4 of the teams who has finished 28th over the last 5 years (Col, Fla, Mtl and TB) made the playoffs the following year you see that wetting your pants and panicking isn't required.

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#72 Dog Train
March 28 2014, 02:02PM
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The best decision that the Oilers made all season was sending Nurse back to junior hockey. I think he will get a cameo next season but I would err on the side of sending him back for another year of junior. We don't need more youth on D next season.

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#73 pkam
March 28 2014, 02:05PM
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RexHolez wrote:

glad were starting to think about defence now... 4 years into this "rebuild" 4 more years these guys should be able to play.

FIRE KEVIN LOWE

In 2010, we drafted Marincin 46th overall, Jeremie Blain 91th overall. Do you think we should draft a defenseman instead of Hall with our 1st overall?

In 2011, we drafted Klefbom 19th overall, Musil 31st overall, Simpson 92nd overall. Do you think we should draft a defenseman instead RNH with our 1st overall?

2103, we drafted Nurse 7th overall.

So the only year you can complain was 2012. Do you really think Ryan Murray will make a big difference?

If you want some defense who have 4 years of pro experience, they have to be drafted before our rebuild start of 2010. I think we are doing okay in the last 4 years.

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#74 Coco Crisp
March 28 2014, 02:25PM
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In my opinion, Kelfbomb has looked pretty sharp? I really hope Petry and Ganger are moved out this summer for an actual Defensemen. I also hope Ekblad is the pick.

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#75 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 28 2014, 02:44PM
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@Zarny

Who said I was wetting my pants. Nobody is going to do MacTavish a favour by giving him a top pairing blueliner or a 2nd line center. he's going to have to grow his own.

As long as we can biotch and moan every loss along the way, I'm all for Ekblad,Draisitle and McDavid (next year). Hopefully one or two of those kids will help make players around them better. Eliminating more of the ones who are here more or less for the paycheque.

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#76 Rod from Viking
March 28 2014, 03:12PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Johnathan you have seen the Barons a lot this year,is there going to be a logjam in a year? My other question is who is doing the bulk of the work with the D because they sure seem to be doing a good job.

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#77 Quintana
March 28 2014, 04:58PM
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Here is the thing: Nurse should spend one more year in juniors , for his development. Kefblom should spend one more year in the Ahl. Keep Marincin in the NHL, the Oilers should go hard after Markov in the offseason and hopefully bring one more veteran. And for the sake of this club draft the best center available in the draftReinhart or Bennett.

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#78 The artist formerly known as Harry
March 28 2014, 05:48PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

The way the Oilers have dealt with many priors 18-21 yr olds, has them squarely where they are now. It's not these kids fault they're on their own being the rest of the shelves are bare on this hockey club.

The Oilers only option is to keep bringing in these 18-21 yr olds till they become a group of 22-25 yr olds that'll help make their path less resistant. One top pairing blueliner deal won't fix this mess.

Just when we thought the losing was about to end. We've just realized we're really only half way there.

So based on what your saying why should they have brought Nurse in this year just like the others as apposed to letting him mature in a leafue he can play 25+ mins in?

Your grip on reality has slipped away

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#79 Steve
March 28 2014, 06:20PM
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Still think the big reason Nurse was not on the WJ team was his aggressive play.

Oilers are very happy with him, he is the type of player that has fire in his belly and will do anything to improve. Can't ask for more than that.

If Oilers get a chance to draft Ekblad they should trade him for Sean Couturier +

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#80 admiralmark
March 28 2014, 08:46PM
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I think people answer the should Nurse play on the Oilers next year question backwards. What "should" happen is

1) MacT needs to find a 1st pairing D man. If its an older 35+ year old player on a 2 year deal. Or he trades some of the youth to get this player it doesn't matter but this NEEDS to happen.

2) Between Marincin, Klefbom, Nurse, and maybe Ekblad. Who should stay absolutely depends on how they look in training camp. Saying right now in March that Nurse should go back to junior is asinine. IF he's ready he should stay.

3) Keep in mind #1 with that 1st pairing D man in place it will allow them to somewhat ease the step of these young players into the NHL competition.

I think with this upcoming D on the horizon that if Ekblad isn't there I would not be that upset with one of the 3 C's Reinhart, Bennet or Draistl being taken. The 2C spot is a major weakness 2nd only to D.

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