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.
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
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”).
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