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

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.

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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!:

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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. 


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.’

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  • Quicksilver ballet

    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.

    • pkam

      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.

    • Joe Mamma

      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?

      • SlaveLake

        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


    • Quicksilver ballet

      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.

    • pkam

      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.

  • Bucknuck

    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

    • The Last Big Bear

      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.

  • 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.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    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.

  • Zarny

    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 +

  • 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.