Should Darnell Nurse play in the NHL or AHL next season?

Darnell Nurse

The Edmonton Oilers have an interesting decision coming up in the fall with respect to defenceman Darnell Nurse. The 2013 first-rounder will be making the jump to the professional ranks, and the question is whether he should do that in Edmonton and the NHL or with the Oilers’ AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, California.

Nurse’s Peers

3.19.15 Nurse peers

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The chart above shows the progression of defencemen drafted out of major junior between No. 5 and No. 10 overall between 2003 and 2013. The number in each box is points/82 games, and the colour indicates what level the player posted that number at—orange for junior, grey for the AHL, blue for the NHL. Players are ranked by point totals in their respective draft years. Some players played in multiple leagues in a given year; in those cases I have defaulted to the league in which they played the most games.

Most of those players—particularly the defensive defencemen—have done what Nurse has and spent the first three seasons of their career in junior. Only one (Luke Schenn) graduated to the NHL immediately following his draft year and only two others made the jump the following season. If we include Nurse, 10 of 15 spent two years post-draft in junior, and two of the others went to the AHL.

But that third year post-draft is pretty close to 50/50. Six players spent the majority of the season in the majors, eight spent the majority in the minors and Nurse’s fate is to be determined. For the most part, the better players on the list ended up in the NHL; with a few exceptions the AHL crowd is pretty disappointing. And even the exceptions—Alzner and Pouliot stand out—generally saw lots of time in the NHL. Alzner played 30 major-league games; Pouliot could yet play more time in the NHL than AHL and thus switch categories.

The Course of Patience

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Craig MacTavish6

The Oilers are not known for being particularly good at patience with young talent, but there have been signals that might be changing. The most notable came late last month, when general manager Craig MacTavish hinted to the Edmonton Journal’s John MacKinnon that both Nurse and Leon Draisaitl could start 2015-16 in the AHL:

We can’t look at this thing short-term. We have to develop these guys the right way. Leon’s got deficiencies in his game. Darnell is a little bit older, he’s got a little bit more experience, I think, maybe not at the NHL level. But there are going to be some deficiencies in his game going forward. We’re committed to making sure that, like Oscar Klefbom—he came up and it was a pretty seamless transition. If you go down to the American League and you’re dominant down there, then when you clear that hurdle, then you’re ready to come up here and it’s much healthier for the team, rather than (living with) a bunch of youthful mistakes that we’ve lived with for far too long.

MacTavish also suggested that AHL time would serve Nurse well because he’d be used in a variety of situations, from three-on-five penalty-killing to the power play.

It’s probably a good strategy, both for the player and the team, to a point. We see the majority of Nurse’s peers over the last decade haven’t made the jump to the NHL initially, but we can also see that it’s been a close thing. In a lot of cases, his peers started out in the minors and forced their way to the major leagues by making themselves the best call-up options.

The Oilers would be wise not to count on Nurse, to assume that he’s in the majority camp and won’t be ready for the NHL immediately upon graduation to the professional ranks. It’s an assumption that gives the team room to maneuver, one that limits risk. But nobody should be terribly surprised if Nurse wins a job outright, either, and on merit rather than the way Leon Draisaitl did this season (“that wasn’t a choice, that was a lack of options”).


Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

    • YFC Prez

      Every time you post something I always think about how nice it would be to have Roli again. Or the defense that played in front of him.

      #Gator, The Human rake, ROLOSAHN samurai goalie

  • bwar

    I think he’s playing in the NHL at the end of next season. It’s just a matter of finding out at what point he’ll be ready. He’s had two years of junior post draft and still looks like a great prospect. I’d guess he gets a couple NHL games to start the season then AHL until Christmas and then NHL for the second half of the season.

  • Micbilly99

    The Oilers will insert him into the line up next year.

    Not only that but he’ll play huge minutes.

    MacTavish let Petry walk based on the fact Nurse is on the way.

    However, MacTavish is an average coach and a terrible GM, what’s even worse is he’s a terrible at judging talent and needs of the team.

    Frankly, I’d be stunned if he keeps the current coach.

    I digress.
    Nurse on a top team in WC is a third pairing defensmen at best, considering Jones is a second pairing on a top WC team and Jones is a far superior talent than Nurse is.

    That’s the ultimate problem with the Oilers and GM MacTavish, to even contemplate keeping Nurse on the roster mean’s MacTavish has done nothing to improve arguable the worst defence in the NHL.

    Like, honestly, how do you know how good your forwards or goalie can be with this dumpster fire of a defence?!?

    Apparently Mr GM thought it was Dubnyk.

    Any defence that has Ference, Nitkitnikitkin and Schultz, plus Nurse is asking to draft 3rd overall again.

    Not only should Nurse go to the AHL he shouldn’t even be recalled his first year.

    ……..fix this defence already.

    Visually they’re better though….

  • Zarny

    The Oilers appear to be learning; almost brings a tear to my eye.

    The default should be for Nurse to start the year in the AHL; unless he comes into camp, earns it and leaves no doubt.

    If I had to put money on it, Nurse starts the year in the AHL and finishes with the big boys like Klefbom this year. But only if he’s ready. You can’t overripen a player.

  • The Soup Fascist

    The biggest concern for me is – let’s go crazy and say Nurse is the best Dman in camp – we still have no one to mentor him. Which veteran is going to teach the kid the finer points of the position? Ference is out of his depth – his age has caught up with him and has his own problems trying to remain a legit everyday NHLer. Apparently Nikitin can’t tell the difference between treadmill and a triple cheeseburger. Schultz is not good at hockey. Marincin and Klefbom are babies. So you are left with one competent veteran Dman to mentor and play with Nurse, in Fayne. The problem is he is to offence what Drew Remenda is to lucid hockey commentary.

    Unless the Oilers find an actual top pairing Dman – somehow in the off-season, bringing Nurse up is detrimental. The sad fact even if he is physically ready, there is there is no one to show him how to play the game properly and he will end up spinning his wheels – or going backward – like Schultz has.

    I am NOT reasonably confident about the defensive core we have here.

    • freelancer

      This. I’ve said it on here a few times, the Flames are (unfortunately) a perfect example of what happens when you put rookies in key positions, surrounded by veteran talent. They perform. The Oilers were able to have Hall, Ebs, and Nuge learn from Horcoff, Hemsky, Gagner, Cogliano. Guys who had played in the NHL for years and could offer their experience. As time went on, the kids started to look like more skilled players than lots of those guys, but they still needed that veteran guidance, how to move past being responsible for a goal against, standing up for your teammates.

      Now? Ebs, Nuge, Hall have become better leaders, and you’ve put guys like Gordon, Pouliot and Roy as veteran help; which has tremendously helped guys like Yakupov.

      So why haven’t we done the same on defence?

      Petry was essentially counted on from the moment he became an NHL regular to be our top minutes guy, completely ridiculous to expect of a young defenceman. Our veterans on D, Ference and Nikitin who are a at best, average third pairing. Fayne is a decent 3/4 guy and you can see how he has helped Marincin improve. Klefbom and Schultz? They are learning from each other- Schultz is the one with more NHL experience on that line and I would argue Justin is probably counting more on Klef than vice versa.

      This team needs a Giordano, a veteran guy who can play those top minutes and if you put a Nurse, or a Klef beside him, can mentor them on how to be that guy.

    • Shouldn’t the coaches, oh I don’t know, coach him? Sure, having a mentor is great, but not having one doesn’t necessarily mean it is detrimental. If he is the best they got and is physically ready, he should play, age should not matter. If he not, then he should play in the AHL. Your point about finding an actual top pairing Dman is always relevant and could mean Nurse still plays in either league.

      • The Soup Fascist

        Xs and Os are great. Talk to the kid after every shift but to actually have a guy who is on the ice and able to execute the plays is a key, IMO. It has been a long time since Craig Ramsay has played the game and when he did, he was a forward.

        It is great he can talk to Nurse and the other guys about facing an aggressive forecheck. It is another thing altogether to get hammered into the end glass by a Ryan Reaves. A Brent Seabrook can help Nurse deal with that kind of thing because frankly he can walk the talk. As a fan of the team I don’t want Nicki Nikitin teaching Nurse anything.

        I think a veteran D man who can still play at a high level is a MUST for the development of Nurse, Klefbom etc.

  • CaptainLander

    There is a prevailing belief that the Oilers rush players into the NHL when others don’t. Detroit is usually held up as proof. Every top 3 draft pick Detroit ever had has played in is draft year. The only Oiler I can think of that may have been rushed was Gagner. But he had 40+ points in in every year as an Oiler. Solid 2C point totals. Lander? Klefbom? Rushed?? nope. 2-3 years of professional hockey in Europe and came to Canada as 20 yr olds. Draisital? 3rd overal pick had clearly outgrown PG. Playing in the NHL was better for his development until a trade was made where he would be pushed by other high talents in Kelowna. By all reports, he has dominated there too.

    An elite talent not pushed will decline.

    Oilers are far from perfect but, their development system has been improving ver past 5-6 years.

    • freelancer

      What are you talking about? The oilers rush everyone! You think lander wasnt rushed? They played him 56 games as a 20 year old. They gave up on him and let him go on waivers. They pushed Draisaitl this year! The only reason they sent him back to junior is because he had 2 goals in 37 games! Terrible numbers for a goalie!!

      Not only do they rush guys into the league, but they put them in key roles playing huge minutes against tough competition. You think playing Klefbom and Jultz as too pairing guys isn’t rushing them? They leaned on nuge his first year to be a top line center as an 18 year old, same with hall. I don’t agree with your idea at all!

      • freelancer

        Going to take a second to sit on the fence and say you both have valid points. Let’s jump back to the 2010-2011 season. Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi all started that season. Eberle was drafted in 2008, Paajarvi in 2009 and Hall in 2010. I would argue giving a player like Eberle two seasons to develop before making the jump was apt time. Paajarvi should have had at least one year in the AHL, Hall was a first overall pick. He plays. None of those players were counted on for heavy defensive starts and were all quite sheltered by Renney.

        2011-2012 saw another first overall pick come in in RNH, who there was talk about sending him down… until he scored a hat trick in his second game. He was still given high offensive zone starts and guys like Belanger were counted on (wow…good times) for the heavy starts.

        Yak looked great his first year, Schultz looked okay with plenty of room to grow but arrows pointing up after his first year.

        Really the point I’m making here is most of these guys have looked at home in the NHL in their first couple years… MY PROBLEM is that we have either

        A) Not surrounded these players with veterans to help shelter them

        B) Moved them into key positions (top line, top pairing) way too early.

        I have no problem with these guys seeing NHL time earlier but don’t expect the world from them immediately.

      • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

        Your hate blinds you. Lander is draft + 6 yrs and with 7 yrs pro experience. Came to Canada having played 3yrs pro and was a Captain . Klefbom draft + 5 yrs. Shultz draft + 5 yrs.

        Nuge was a Calder. Trophy candidate.
        And in what World has anyone sent a 1st overall pick back to junior?

        Lack of depth is not rushing draft picks.

  • Burnward

    All this talk about ruining players by rushing them to the NHL, like who? if Darnell earns a spot then let him play. Every player will develop his own way and in his own time frame so saying he has to go to the AHL makes no sense if he is ready for the NHL.

  • CaptainLander

    The problem to me is the quality of dmen that will surround him. Our defense is just brutal so DN will be the best dman right off the bat, but it’ll be throwing him to the wolves instead of sheltering him.

  • CaptainLander

    Simple answer, if the Oilers are a better team with him instead of finding someone outside the organization to fill the role the yes. But if Roy has proved anything even an older smaller and one could argue less skilled veteran can some prove to be more effective then a highly skilled rookie.

    Me I would just like to see him earn his spot not be handed it. If Mac T can find 1 or 2 top D-men and Nurse manages to outplay oooh say Nikitin (which in entirely plausible after Nikitin shows up to camp out of shape) then by all means play him here. In all likelihood he will not and will play and hopefully find success in the A.

  • CaptainLander


    the building is full,

    Our 3-5 best players are under contract

    Hall, RNH, Eberle, Klefbom, Pouliot

    We have interesting talent in our RFA control

    Yakupov, Shultz, Lander, Pitlick

    We have veteran talent under contract

    Gordon, Hendrick, Ference, Purcell, Niktin

    Send Nurse and Draisaitl to the farm for at LEAST 50 games.

    It could be argued, but IMO right now Ference, Niktin are MUCH better than Nurse,


    Roy and maybe Yakamov is better than Draisaitl

    • bleedingoil

      100% agree. Our top 2 lines are better than average. We have 3 (arguably 4) top players in the league in these 2 lines. We have one of the best faceoff men anchoring our 4th line. Our D will be better next year with KBom heading in the right direction. Say what they want about Nikitin, but he has been historically better than he has shown this year with weaker teammates and subpar goaltending. The only concerns I have is with DrDrai possibly making the team we have one too many Centers and can Lander slide to wing? We get one top pairing D and a real NHL #1G and we are on track for the playoffs. BOOK IT

    • Micbilly99

      Relax??? You have to be kidding. The team that you describe is 29th overall in the NHL. Clearly they are not good enough to contend for anything…and not just this year. Team has been bad for years. Poorly scouted players along with poor player development from the team has lead to this mess. How can you relax???

  • bleedingoil

    Your first sentence in the last paragraph kid of sums things up, ” the Oilers would be wise to be patience with Darnell”.

    Since when have the Oilers been accused of being wise?

  • camdog

    “But nobody should be terribly surprised if Nurse wins a job outright, either, and on merit rather than the way Leon Draisaitl did this season (“that wasn’t a choice, that was a lack of options”).”

    That’s the problem, both young men could struggle and still be better than what we have. Even worse they could come to camp play reasonable well and then start to struggle 2-3 months into the season. How do you send struggling kids to the minors, when they are out performing the struggling veterans?

  • CaptainLander

    Well well well MacT seems to finally be taking notes of the way we do things in Calgary..cute. That’s right Craig do things the way Calgary does it and your rebuild might not be stuck in neutral for another 5-10 years

  • Why are we even asking this question? Unless the Oilers acquire a couple of solid D men, I would not bring Nurse on. We need to start protecting our assets and putting them in a position to succeed. Instead we have the worst D in the league led by Ference, Nikitin and Schultz. MacT has failed brilliantly the past two years in shoring up the D. Let Nurse play in the AHL and see how he does before bringing him up.

  • Meh, if Drai finds himself on Lander’s LW along with Purcell on the other side, I’m okay with that third line going forward. Also, Drai has never gotten a chance under anyone other than Eakins, and I think that hurt his and everyone else’s development a little bit.

    As for Nurse, give the guy some time in the AHL, see if he can dominate there.

    And for the love of God, get someone else on defence. Just saying if you can get Boychck from a cap trouble team for 2x second round picks, you should be able to get Seabrook from a cap impossible team for a first round pick, and a prospect like Davidson.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    There are many missed points as far as I am concerned. 1.Development is not just about skill and play-making it is just as much about being big enough to play against men. I have often wondered if Hall had one year in OKC would he have been less injured in his career so far (Time to get big). Getting hit by NHL men should be more likely to injure than AAA men. 2. If Our defencemen were in OKC a bit is the learning curve to NHL speed and systems that we use more gentle and less like to create confidence issues? 3. Up until this point we have had more success in the AAA level than NHL, play the kids were it is working. 4. I really do not understand why the Oilers rushed so many players in to the NHL with out OKC being part of the story. All those players could of come up a little later and had more time to be on lower pay and therefore a higher skilled team because some of your best players are still on ELC? This was a shortsighted move IMO.
    5. Sure several of our players look good now but I would argue that the following could of used at least 1 year in OKC Yakupov, RNH for size, Schultz, Gags, Fedun more time, Grebeshkov, Omark, Paajarvi etc I am not saying all these players would of worked out I just see us as not having enough patience. I also think that Wavers is a two edged sword if a players is on wavers and picked up once or twice and cant seem to get back to AAA they seem to disappear forever. If they could go down for longer it could mean a useful NHL life for them.

  • freelancer

    During a Canadian World Junior televised game. Ray Ferraro made an interesting comment on the caliber of the game we were watching.

    He said that the best team at the tournament would be beaten by an average AHL team.

    I think we should enjoy junior hockey as teenagers playing against teenagers (basically), but it is a HUGE leap to the NHL where the best men in the world play against each other.

  • Here is what I am reading in the comment section:

    “The Oilers are so stupid they are the only team that would rush a player like Nurse into the league and they are totally going to destroy his career….except for all those other teams who put similar players in the NHL and totally did not ruin their careers at all!”

  • freelancer

    Dion Phaneuf. There, I said it. I’m not happy about it either, but he would do a lot of good for our young dmen coming g up. The Leafs would have to eat some of that contract, for sure.

  • Rdubb

    I thought, & i may be incorrect here, but, i thought that a player coming out of junior COULDN’T go to the AHL?
    As the graph above shows both Alzner & Ellerby went to and played in the NHL after their draft, or did I mis-read the graph?
    Because did we not go through the same discussions in regards to Nail and the Oilers weren’t able to send him down, he either had to play in junior or in the NHL…
    Should i have mis-read the above graph sorry about that, and if by chance I read it correct, how did this happen when we couldn’t do it with Nail?
    A little clarification on this would be greatly appreciated…