Learning to process the NHL game


Is Darnell Nurse ready for the NHL? At this point no one can say for sure. He will be given every opportunity to make the Oilers during the preseason, and possibly for a few regular season games, but I still don’t believe 12-14 games is enough time to know to make a proper assessment.

Determining if he is ready can’t be gauged strictly on size, strength and skill, which Nurse has in abundance, because the biggest challenge most players face when making the jump to the NHL is reading and understanding the game.

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I think Nurse is in a great position. If he doesn’t make the NHL he can go back to junior, play for Canada at the World Juniors and keep working on his game, and he will have the advantage of having a coach who knows how hard it is to come out of junior and jump into the NHL.

Sheldon Keefe was drafted 47th overall in 1999 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was born on September 17th, so he was drafted at 18, not 17, and played only one more year of junior after being drafted.

Keefe left the OHL as a highly touted offensive prospect. He led the league in scoring in his final year, 48-73-121 in 66 games, but Keefe struggled coming out of junior.

“My personal experience having gone
through it, I think it would be pretty fair to categorize me as a player that
never really panned out if you will, or didn’t reach his potential,” said Keefe honestly.

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“When I look back at my time coming out of
junior as a twenty year old… I spent some time in the minors, but very little.
I think that I played three games in the IHL, before getting my first call up
and then had a lengthy period of time in the NHL that season. And then I spent
some more time in the minors, but nothing of significance beyond that.

“I never got comfortable as a player. I was
coming out of the OHL, I led the league in scoring, was a high end offensive
player, but the game never slowed down for me at the NHL level. I just never
felt comfortable, felt like things were happening way too fast and I couldn’t
be the same type of player that I was.

“It’s really tough when you’re in the moment
because everybody wants to play in the NHL, but looking back on it, I believe
that I certainly needed more seasoning at the minor league level.

was with Tampa Bay who was a team that was trying to
find their way and was finishing near the bottom of the league each year. I
probably benefited in terms of playing in the NHL earlier than a lot of
my peers because of the fact that they needed help, or that they didn’t have as
much depth. Looking back on it, I’m not sure that it did me any favours in
terms of developing a long NHL career,” explained Keefe.

Keefe’s description of struggling to process the game and get comfortable on the ice describes many players who couldn’t stick in the NHL. It is the best league in the world, and many very good players don’t find success.

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I believe strongly that one of the biggest reasons for players not reaching their potential is rushing them to the NHL. As Keefe stated, every young player wants to play and feels they are ready, but how many of them truly are? The stats say not many.



Is Nurse ready for The Show? Keefe would know best. He’s watched every game he’s played the past few seasons.

“In terms of Darnell’s game, I think
that he’s in a good place. He grew as a player in terms of his
ability both with and without the puck. He made some great improvements without
the puck, things that we targeted as a staff as well as things that came down
from the Oilers for Darnell to work on in terms of his reads on the rush, defending on the rush and the D zone coverage. Things like that, I think he
made great strides in and he made very, very good steps offensively as well. His
point production increased, and quite often he was a force for us with the puck
coming out of our end and joining the rush. So, he did a lot of really good
things that way,” said Keefe.

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Keefe did point out one very important aspect of Nurse’s game that he can improve.

“I do believe that Darnell has another level to
get to in terms of processing the game and making decisions with the puck and
playing the power play and things like that. I think that he can get to another
level. But he’s a physical specimen and he is extremely powerful, obviously has
great size, great character and he’s not afraid of anything really.

terms of how prepared he is for the NHL, I think that time will tell on that
and that’s going to get sorted out in training camp. I know that he has trained
extremely hard. He feels good, he feels ready,” Keefe said.

If his junior coach believes he has room to grow in processing the game at the OHL level, would it be best to let him work on that down there, rather than try to process the game against the best players in the world? That will be up to the Oilers to answer.

Some have suggested that if Nurse goes back to junior he could pick up some bad habits. I don’t agree, but I asked Keefe if that is a concern based on his experience in the Soo.

“In terms of bad habits that can be
developed in junior, I think that that comes down to the player and their drive
to want to continue to improve and ultimately comes down to the organization.

“We take pride in players that play for our
team and wanting to convert them to NHLers and make sure that they are
prepared. We want to develop low maintenance pros. So it will be on us as a
staff to make sure that we are continuing to challenge Darnell or any of our
players that were to come back,”said Keefe.

I don’t think Nurse’s natural competitiveness would allow him to cheat and pick up bad habits in junior. He didn’t make the world junior team last year and he has yet to win the OHL championship or the Memorial Cup. He could still accomplish a great deal if he goes back to junior.


Currently the Oilers don’t have a dominant left shot on the powerplay. Nikita Nikitin might be that player next season, but I don’t see him as a long-term answer. Keefe mentioned that Nurse improved his offensive total and his play on the powerplay last season.

I asked him to explain exactly what they worked on and, if he was lucky enough to have Nurse back for another season, what area of his PP skills would he focus on improving?

“I think it’s more of the same in terms
of processing the game and play selections. He was our quarterback on the power
play if you will. He had the puck a lot both coming up the ice on breakouts,
had to make the right decision there and everything funneled through him in the offensive
zone as well. So with that you’ve got to make the right selections, you’ve got
to be able to bring coverage to you and move pucks around people. And then
you’ve got to be able to get your shots through and hit the net consistently. These are all things that were an area of focus for Darnell last season
and us as a team.

“You’re constantly focusing on those fundamentals. But
I think that a lot of it just goes back to play selection and solving the
problems when the pressure comes.The powerplay is a big area of focus for us as a staff to come up with better
plans and things like that.

“We’re taking some
ownership of it from a coaching perspective. It’s not just on our players. That’s a
big part of things for us to be more prepared, but certainly that play selection
and getting shots through to the net consistently is a big part of it and
Darnell showed very positive signs of that last year. But he certainly has some growing
to do there as well,” Keefe said.


The good news is the Oilers actually have enough defensive depth and good prospects that they don’t have to rush Nurse this season. If he proves he is better than Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin then he will stick. It is a nice change for the Oilers to actually have some legitimate competition for spots, rather than just give young players a spot in the lineup.

If Nurse ends up back in junior, he has a coach who will push him to keep improving.

Nurse is in a great position to maximize his development, and I still believe another year in junior and a trip to the World Juniors will only enhance his abilities as a player.

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  • Zarny

    DARNELL…Uncle Donovan, I don’t like hockey anymore, I got beat to the outside, made 2 bad passes and got sent on my keester.

    DONOVAN… Darnel, get your ass out there and obliterate the next guy that comes near you, then gather up the dam puck and go score a goal!

    I’m thinking he stays, just gotta look at the pedigree.

    • Reg Dunlop

      I am not sure that Nurse’s pedigree is influenced by the guy that married Darnell’s aunt. Anyway, he is going to be a huge part of any future success that the oil enjoy.

      For those discouraged that Nurse isn’t dominating the NHL already… prepare yourselves for Herr Draisaitl and his very underwhelming wheels.