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.

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. 


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.’


  • SlaveLake

    Sweet! If Nurse learns to defend the center of the ice like the Oilers are asking, then he can play 9 games here next year and teach the rest of the team. Good plan!

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    I hope Nurse completely DOMINATES in the preseason, completely DEMOLISHES the competition to the point where there is NO QUESTION that he is an NHL star in the making…

    …and then we send him back to junior.

    Am i doing it right?

    Sorry, I just don’t agree with sending a player back to junior “just because he’s young”. Not every defenceman has the same development curve. I think it should be solely on merit, otherwise what message does that send? Furthermore, this is our defence and it mostly sucks. For all we know he might be a better player than a guy like Ference who’s earning the big $$$.

    • #ThereGoesTheOilers

      So if a player shows well in preseason we should bank on it? By that logic Joensuu would be playing in the top 6 every night.

      Between Schultz, Klefbom, and Marincin, I think we’ve got the colour green in all the shades we can handle.

    • TKB2677

      See that sort of reinforces what I said about having to be 20 to play in the AHL otherwise it’s juniors or the NHL. Even if Nurse does dominates the preseason, he would benefit from playing 1/3 – 1/2 of a season in the AHL just to get used to playing on a night by night basis against men.

      The difference between playing against a 17 yr old vs a 27 yr old just in strength alone I don’t think can be completely explained or experienced in a sort training camp.

      • TKB2677

        With that rule could he then play in the AHL after he turns 20 next year? I couldn’t see that working if SSM is one of the top teams again in the OHL.
        It will be interesting how the young d are handled.
        Mac T is in a position of strength with d prospects but not with centers so who knows what things will look like next year. I would like to see Fedun get a few games as well before seasons end.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    How the Oilers manage all these young D is going to show a lot about MacT’s GM skills.

    We all see the black hole on D. But I don’t think 18-20 year old skinny teenagers can be the fix. Is MacT thinks they are, we are completely screwed, and can kiss 2015 goodbye.

    Klefbom should go back to OKC. Nurse should go back to junior. Marincin can be the only skinny kid we keep around, and should be pushed way, way, way back in the depth chart. DO NOT draft Ekblad. Trade that pick and some other assets for TWO 25-29 year old proven veteran NHL d man. These 2 new real NHL d will push Schultz down the depth chart, let him be a PP guy. Petry is a good #3-#4. Ferrence a solid #5.

    The disaster will be if MacT drafts Ekblad, brings him in, along with Klefbom & Nurse and tries to develop 4 skinny kids next year on the NHL club with Petry and Ferrence as our only legit veterans. YIKES…..

    If that happens, the only good thing is that we will have a good shot at Connor McDavid.

    • TKB2677

      Marincin is 6’4, 188 right now. At the end of the season he’s going to have 5 months to work out with I’m sure a work out and eating plan laid out by the Oilers. He has the frame and could easily put on 15lbs in 5 months of good weight and be over 200. That will make a HUGE difference.

      Where do you get that Klefbomb is skinny? He’s 6’3, 213 right now. He was recovering from shoulder surgery last offseason. He’s going to have this offseason to work out and get even stronger. How much bigger do you want him to get?

      Nurse will be in the same boat. He’s already 6’3, 192. Putting on another 10-15lbs in an offseason is easily done. If he comes into camp at 205-210. That’s not exactly skinny.

      I don’t disagree that they can’t have all these kids in the line up next year. I wouldn’t have Nurse and I think they need 1 or 2 transition vet guys. But in 2 seasons, if the Oilers have Schultz, Marincin, Klefbomb and Nurse all in the line up, that is pretty promising.

    • TKB2677

      I kind of feel like 2015 has been kissed goodbye already. Look at how far this team has to go! Sure Colorado went from 29th to the top, but that’s rare, and can not be counted on.

      I say draft Eckblad and send him back to the OHL with Nurse. Give them both a 9 game taste of NHL action first, but let them BOTH develop properly. I don’t care if some people think he’s NHL ready.

      Klefbom can come up next year and be bottom pairing (hopefully not with the guys he’s got to play with right now). Marincin has locked a spot. Schultz is still really new and raw, and Petry is barely older. That’s enough youth and inexperience on the team. And it means next year will suck like this one did.

      • TKB2677

        Here’s a question.

        When people say 2015 is already “kissed away” what does that mean?

        I get people’s frustration about not being in the playoffs for 8 yrs, I’m just as frustrated. But is it playoffs next season or 2015 is wasted? If the Oilers are in the “hunt” playing meaningful games at this point in the year but end up say 9th or 10th, is that a loss?

        People lately are using the AVs as a comparable to the Oilers. They scream foul because the Avs drafted #1 last year and are a lock to make the playoffs this year. But people forget that the Avs were a bad team for a while. They drafted Duchense and Landskog very high. They had a reasonably vet team with some young guys and had a ridiculous year with Anderson in goal and made the playoffs, then fell back again and were bad. So they have had a peaks and valleys progression. The Oilers are in the valley right now and have been there for a while. I am hoping that after this season, they start up the hill and continue to keep going up and up rather than go down, spike up drastically, then spike down, then spike up.

        • Quicksilver ballet

          I see what you mean…tough to define. I guess I meant they wouldn’t make the playoffs. My guess is that by this point they won’t be playing meaningful games, but hopefully the season won’t be over by January (this year the season was over by Nov. 15). So while improvement would be finishing 9-10 in the west, just shy of the playoffs, I don’t see it happening, and getting to the playoffs is the goal. Then succeeding in the playoffs, which is much further out.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    I think I see Billy Moore’s hand in not only Nurse but a number of developing prospects through out the organization . Good decision by Mac T to have Billy Moore put in charge of working with these kids thru the coaches in the different organizations .

  • TKB2677

    I never thought Nurse would make the Oilers even next season as they are already going to have a bunch of very young, inexperienced Dmen making up the core. J. Schultz will at the end of this season and the start of next have just over 120 games. Marincin who looks to be a lock for top 4 minutes will have just over 43. Klefbomb could potentially be in the mix if he continues to play decent. He will have 16 games at seasons end. So I don’t think the Oiles D can handle another young guy.

    It’s too bad the OHL has that stupid rule of having to be 20 to play in the AHL. Nurse won’t be 20 until Feb of 2015 so he won’t be eligible. I think he would benefit from playing in the AHL next season. Unless your game is ridiculously raw or you are an extreme late bloomer, I’ve never been a believer that a 20 yr old gets a ton out of playing another year of junior. The difference in size, strength and experience between a 20yr old vs a 16-17 yr old is HUGE. Sure I guess he could continue to refine his game but how much benefit will Nurse get from dominating kids 3-4 yrs younger and maybe 30-40lbs lighter? Nurse next season will easily be over 200 while I imagine most 16-17 yr olds are 160-170.

    I live in Red Deer and got to watch Phanuef during the lock out play for the rebels when he was 20. It was great that he played for my City’s team but it was also kind of ridiculous to watch. He was head and shoulders bigger than anyone on the ice by a lot. He literally played 3/4 of the game and he could do it because he didn’t have to do much. Every kid stayed away from him because if they got near him, he’d knock them silly with a hit because he was 30-40 heavier than most kids on the ice. His experience compared to the majority of the players he played against was so much better. His skating was so superior to a 17 yr olds because he was 3 yrs older and several NHL camps farther along than anyone. He was twice as strong as the majority of the kids on the ice because he was 20, A MAN, vs 16-17 yr old boys. So he would just push these kids off the puck with little effort. So I honestly don’t know how much benefit other than staying in shape Phanuef got. When you are twice as experienced, twice as strong, twice as farther along in your development, you really don’t have to try as hard to over match most of your opponents.

    SO it’s really too bad. It’s either junior or the NHL for Nurse next season and a year in the AHL playing against men instead of boys would go a long way in getting him ready for the NHL faster.

    That being said, I like what I am hearing about him. Sounds like he really took what the Oilers asked of him to heart and really improved his game.

  • CaptainLander

    Rebuild, part II is looking good. Building from the back end this time. Nurse and Ekblad could indeed make this team a real threat if they can live up to their potential. 2020 is going to be a really exciting year for the Seattle Oilers.

        • pkam

          Oilers still sell out almost all games.

          Before Katz wants to move the team when the team has problem selling tickets, he has to try to sell the team to a buyer who is willing to keep the team here at a fair market price.

          If there is no buyer, NHL will own the team and keep it in Edmonton for a few more years if the city of Edmonton is still interested to keep the team and is willing to share part of the loss.

          A model that is already implemented in Phoenix.

          Very likely the owners group will show up again when needed.

          Why should I worry if Coyotes are still in Phoenix?

      • Zarny

        LMAO…the post Cup run attempts from 2007-2010 were not a “rebuild”. That was Lowe and Tambo chasing the dream with offer sheets and trying to get Heatley. That is trying to win now not a rebuild.

        The complete tear down starting with drafting Hall simply isn’t done. Who on earth thought 3 draft picks (Hall, Nuge and Yak) equals a rebuild? That’s ridiculous.

        It took LA, Chi and StL etc 8-10 years to get to the top of the league. Their core players are drafted 5-6 years apart not 3.

        The only team to build faster was Pit and they did it by surrounding their young players with vets…literally. When Pit won the Cup they only had 7 players younger than 27: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Fleury, Talbot and Goligoski.

        The Oilers this season only have 7 players older than 27.

      • Those would be losing years and retooling of the roster. There was never an all out trade all your vets for draft picks, commit to several years of planned losing where you can accumulate high draft picks to restock your team.

        They were actually trying to be competitive back then and failing at it. That is not considered rebuilding otherwise every team that misses the playoff would be considered a rebuild.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    Good work, JW.

    It went from Nurse not making the WJ team, to people allegedly booing him in his own barn, to Soo’s GM saying they keep their own version of advanced stats and Nurse has been nothing short of spectacular this season based on them, to people who cover junior hockey saying the improvement in his game from start of season till now has been tremendous.

    What a roller coaster. I’m glad it’s trending in the right direction.

  • Neilio

    I don’t see anything disconcerting about his starting point being far back that he needed massive improvement. His starting point was #6 overall. I think everyone understood that he was a bit raw. He, like every other young defenceman needs to make those big strides to get closer to their potential. He’s done everything asked of him.

  • toprightcorner

    If he has a great camp again I hope he gets the 8 games with the Oil and then goes back for another year of domination in the CHL and represents Canada at the WJC.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    actually, if the Oilers manage to get apparently NHL ready Ekblad at the draft, Nurse likely will go back to junior, but remember if he’s judged to be ready for NHL play, he’ll be here. if Nurse and Ekblad were to play here next season, then Klefbom can go back to OKC if he’s judged to be not quite ready. to me Klefbom hasn’t been anything special….yet. and i feel that if he’s not traded, Marincin has probably locked up a spot next year. what i’m really hoping is that the Oilers take Draisaitl, sign/trade for a couple of GOOD NHL d-men, keep Nurse in junior another year, and put Klefbom in OKC for another year. with all these d-men in our system, we finally have some good depth there and it’s a nice problem to have to try and find spots for all of them on our NHL roster.

  • toprightcorner

    Another year in Junior would be best for his development. Thats the Pietrangelo path and should be followed by every defenseman.

    If neither Marincin and Klefbom are traded this summer, there is no possible way the Oilers can have those two and Nurse on their d-core and expect to improve from this yearès defensive disaster.

  • toprightcorner

    It is very encouraging to hear that Nurse is, in fact, working on developing his game along the lines that the Oilers have indicated. Of concern is the ‘fishbowl’ nature of the environment in Edmonton. Due to the lack of success of the team, fans and media alike tend to analyze players to death.

    It is my sincere hope that Nurse is given the chance to grow and develop into the player we drafted. (A high potential, multi-tool D man who can contribute long term to the Oilers)It is getting to the point where fans are hyper critical and too quick to jump on prospects. Please Oiler fans, give him a chance.