Nurse vs. McDavid: Glimpse to the future


Darnell Nurse and his Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds will battle Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League semi-finals starting tomorrow. Both teams are loaded with elite young players and first round draft picks, but Oilers fans will be paying close attention to Nurse and McDavid. You can watch the first two games on line, and games three (Sunday),four (Tuesday) and five (next Thursday) on Sportsnet 360.

I spoke with Nurse yesterday and he was very excited about the challenge of facing McDavid, but I could tell he was also looking at it as an opportunity to show the Oilers how much he’s improved his defensive play.

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How did he feel when the Oilers won the lottery?

“It was a mixed reaction. It was very exciting to see for the
organization (Oilers), but I have a lot of work to do here in Sault Ste. Marie
before I think about that,” said Nurse. It is a unique situation for Nurse. He knows he and McDavid will most likely be teammates in the NHL, but right now he wants to hit him every chance he gets.

Nurse spoke glowingly about McDavid, however, having played with him at the recent World Juniors, and against him for the past two season in the OHL. I asked what he feels is McDavid’s best asset.

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“His ability to combine his intelligence with his speed, and
he just makes plays really fast off the rush so that makes him a threat every
time he has the puck. I’m looking forward to the challenge of facing him. It
will be a highlight of the season for sure,” said Nurse.


Nurse’s coach, Sheldon Keefe was named OHL coach of the year
and he has been tough on Nurse all year, challenging him to be a better player.

“This is his second full season, and every since he has got
here there have been a lot of one-on-one meetings, not just with myself, but
with everyone on the team. He’s pretty tough on me. He has high expectations
every time I go on the ice.

“He wanted me to be someone who was hard to
play against and ensure I don’t put my team in a tough position. I’m always
challenged to be someone who is hard to play against, but know the line not to
cross,” Nurse explained.

Some players might have been pouted after getting sent back to junior, and while Nurse admitted he was disappointed he vowed he would use this year to improve his game. 

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What part of his game has improved the most?

“Defensively. I’ve always had the ability to make plays, but
I think I ran around a bit the first three years in this league. He (Keefe) has really
challenged me to be in the right position, and when the puck is on my stick to
make the right decision. I feel I’ve improved the most in those two areas,” said Nurse.

Nurse’s role also changed this year after the Greyhounds acquired offensive defenceman Anthony DeAngelo. DeAngelo is a pure offensive D-man. He has 14 assists in eight playoff games for the Soo, and he has taken much of Nurse’s PP time.

Nurse had become the team’s #1 shutdown guy. He faces all the tough matchups, and he sounded like he was loving the challenge. 

“A big focus for me has been to be a shut down defender. When
we brought in Anthony DeAngelo, who is great offensively, it has allowed me to be
the main defender. I relish playing against the other team’s top lines, and my
main focus down the stretch has been to keep the other team’s top players off
the score sheet. I still want to score, and I know I can do that, but for now
my role is to be a shut down guy, and I believe that has made me a better
overall player,” said Nurse.

The Oilers desperately need some players who are comfortable and willing to play great defensively. They lack a big, mean, skilled physical defender and Nurse is that exact player. 

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He turned 20 in February, and I’m not expecting him to be in the Oilers top pairing in October, but he is developing into the exact player the Oilers desperately need. 

I’m excited to watch this series, because it will be great hockey and has many elite future NHL players, but Oilers fans should be thrilled, and maybe a bit giddy, watching two players who should play a big role in turning the franchise into a contender down the road.


  •  If the Oilers hire Peter Chiarelli I see him more in Kevin Lowe’s role than I do as the general manager. I’d be very surprised if Bob Nicholson axed Craig MacTavish after starting his press conference with the words loyalty and trust. Chiarelli has a strong track record and he has many years experience as a scout, assistant GM and GM.
  • I realize Chiarelli lost the Tyler Seguin trade, but he made many more good trades than bad deals since taking over as GM of the Bruins, and most importantly, he won a Stanley Cup. No GM has a perfect record, nor should they, but Chiarelli built the Bruins into a solid contender, made two Stanley Cup appearances, winning once, and missed the playoffs with 96 points. 
  • If you think Chiarelli isn’t the answer, I’m very curious who you think would be a better hire right now?
  • Far from breaking news, but I think it is all but assured Todd Nelson won’t be the head coach next season. I firmly believe this is because Nicholson and MacTavish want an experienced head coach. I listened to MacTavish’s end of year presser again, and the words, “Much of coaching is about timing,” really stuck out for me. The Oilers need experience, and while Nelson has proven he is a capable coach, he simply doesn’t have enough NHL expertise. That might not be fair, but often in life timing is everything, and I think Nelson will have to go elsewhere to get an NHL head coaching job. 

 Recently by Jason Gregor:   

  • Reg Dunlop

    Hmmm…Loyalty and trust you say, I don’t think fan favourite coach Nelson will get much of that. PC might get added to the organization but the only significant change will be the coach unfairly.

    The Oilers have 3 of the best junior players in hockey leading their respective teams in the playoffs they will be difference makers in the NHL. The second first rounder in the draft will be a real good player.

  • Jason Gregor

    Hiring Chiaralli would be a huge win for the oilers. he built a power house in boston that was and is competitive for years- he had injuries to all his key players in boston and missed the playoffs by … 2 points? you take that deal

  • Rdubb

    I must disagree in regards to coach Nelson, I think that he would be the perfect guy for the job. All one has to do is look @ how he turned this team around mid-season, coming in when the team was @ it’s absolute worst, and what happened upon his taking the team over? Well, the Oilers PP increased greatly, moving up from the 13% range up to the low 20% range. All the main players who’ll be in huge roles for helping turn this team around turned their seasons, and perhaps in some cases, their careers around, again, mid-season. And to a man, especially the “core” players who’ll need to improve to turn this team around, spoke EXTREMELY highly of Nelson and again, to a man, said that they wanted him to return behind the bench. Shouldn’t Oilers management listen to their star players when it comes to coaches? Especially when they trust said coach, and perhaps more importantly, buy into his system!
    I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to turn this teams fortunes around mid-season and give this team an identity when they didn’t have one for so long. He managed to get the players to shoot the puck, go to the net, get the puck into the “dirty” areas, take the opposition bodies, ect…
    Lets not forget his record, 17-22-5 (i believe anyways), and many of those games he was without Hall, Pouliotte, Gordon, Hendricks was injured, the team traded Perron and their best D-man in Petry. For a majority of his tenure the Oilers were without close to 7 regulars night in and night out. Most nights Nelson had 1/2 an AHL team competing against NHL teams, not to mention that Nelson also realized that his goalies in OKC were better then that which were playing on the Oilers roster.
    My hope is that MacT (and I guess Oilers brass) gives Nelson a true shot @ coaching this team out of the gate. What would hurt? Give him a 2yr deal, and if there isn’t any real improvement in the way the team plays, get a different head coach for the opening of the new rink, but my guess is that Edmonton finally has the right coach behind the bench, but they’ll end up losing him because they feel he doesn’t have enough NHL experience. How does a coach gain experience? By coaching crappy teams, and what is Edmonton?
    MacT screwed up by passing over Nelson 2yrs ago, now he better not screw things up again by allowing him to walk. I don’t think many other coaches could have had his record with this team last season, and turning guys season around too, look @ Eberle, Yak, Lander, RNH, Roy, Klefbom, MM, ect…

    • El Pindo

      Sorry Bud… Good post and I would have agreed prior to the Oilers winning the lottery.Saturday April 18th changed everything for the Oilers in an unbelievable way that no one in Oil Land expected.

      Ask the same players now what they prefer. “Yes” to coach Mclellan or Babcock and Nelson as an Assistant. Let the Oiler’s Management do what they now need to do to make this team a contender for many years to come.

    • Mason Storm

      rdubb – I read your post. It was quite difficult reading the one paragraph but you make good points.

      I think keeping Nelson is important but I really like the idea of seeing what a good experience coach could do with this team. Looking at what Calgary is doing this year, I think a lot of credit has to go to Hartley.

      X’s and O’s are important but I think the primary responsibility of a coach these days is to convince the team to buy into their system and support each other on the ice, as the good teams do.

    • BillHK

      McTavish :

      He fired Kruger when he shouldn’t have.

      He hired Eakins when he shouldn’t have.

      Now he’ll probably fire Nelson and he shouldn’t.

      (For all I know Nicholson probably will hire the next coach.)

  • Zarny

    When Eakins was here destroying the team at every turn, the professional writers were basically all singing the same song, ” that being our problem is not coaching”!

    Well as it turns out it was coaching. We brought in a great young coach and his message and systems were immediately successful with the players. Fast forward and now suddenly we need an experienced coach?? Why ? Do we not still have a young team?

    Exactly what will an experienced coach be able to deliver that Nelson cannot? No one has an answer and rightfully so because there is no correct answer……..changing a coach for no reason now is pure stupidity! Last time I checked Mclleland never won a Stanley cup so why is his experience so critical now?

    If I remember Sather did not have much experience ( almost none) and it did not stop him from being a great coach.

    • Mason Storm

      I have to say I agree and as I said in a previous blog,
      Unless they have a “cock” in their name (Hitchcock or Babcock)
      Then I would leave Nelson as coach. If they hire one of the two
      Then I am sure that Nelson is humble and hungry enough to learn and
      fine tune his skills under two of the best coaches in the game today.
      Ideally, I would love to see Babcock as GM and Hitch as coach, Nelson
      as assistant coach.

      • Mason Storm


        Come on be careful what you wish for……..this guy is the most defensive coach in the world and his teams are the most boring to watch.

        He would kill any creativity any of the players have, including McDavid! If St’Louis is any indication, NO THANKS!

        • Jason Gregor

          Blues were 5th in goals scored this year and 7th last year.

          I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Tarasenko is top five most dynamic players in the game right now. Blues had 5 players with 55+ points, tied for most in the NHL.

          I’d say they are far from boring. They just happen to be good defensively, 5th in GA this year and 3rd last year, as well as highly offensive.

          • Jason Gregor

            Gregor, do you really think this guy would create a exciting brand of hockey?

            I know Tarasenko is a great player, but having watched Hitchcock teams over the years, I think it’s pretty safe to assume it’s going to be boring hockey for the fans of Edmonton.

            Just my opinion.

          • Zarny

            There is nothing boring about the Blues and there is nothing boring about winning.

            You have to give Hitchcock credit; he’s changed with the times. He’s not the same coach and doesn’t run the same systems as he did in Dal, Phi or CBJ.

      • Zarny

        What is all this blather about Babcock as GM?

        He’s arguably the best coach in the game but he has absolutely zero experience as a GM. No different than MacT in that regard.

        Babcock’s expertise is in coaching; not negotiating trades and contracts, scouting players or managing the cap.

  • Zarny

    @Rama Lama

    Immediately successful? Nelson’s record was 17-22-7 over 46 games.

    Over the final 61 games last year Eakins’ record was 25-29-7. Over the final 30 games last year Eakins’ was 14-13-3.

    The players looked happier under Nelson, but there was very little “success”. Nelson’s record over a full-season would have amounted to 77 pts over 26th place.

    That’s not actually very good.

    • Zarny

      I think you conveniently forget that combined with injuries he basically had a AHL roster to work with.

      I think it’s safe to say, just about any coach including the TOP coaches in the NHL, would have had similar results.

      • Zarny

        And I think you conveniently forget that Eakins had the same AHL roster.

        But your comment that just about any coach, including the top coaches, would have had similar results.

        Sort of contradicts your previous statement that coaching was the problem.

        If even the top coaches in the NHL would have had similar results then clearly coaching wasn’t/isn’t the problem now is it.

        Because if coaching was the problem the results would not be the same if you had one of the top coaches in the league.

        • Zarny

          Considering the numerous articles that were written about what Eakins had to work with compared to Nelson……’s safet to say Eakins was a total disaster.

          Because you are so smart………exactly how does a Todd Mclleland or Babcock make the OIlers better? Mclleland just got fired for poor results and Babcock has had a great system to lean on for players.

          Exaclty what did Nelson have to lean on………his AHL roster????

    • BillHK

      Take a look at the roster Nelson was given to Tank with, and what ge got out of them was pretty good.

      Still amazed that MacT ended the year with the same flawed players that he started it with knowing right from the beginning that they lacked right up the middle. I mean started the season with 2 NHL Centers, no Top pairing DMen and 2 unproven Goalies.

  • 916oiler

    This is tough! You want McDavid to score like crazy, but you also want Nurse to shut him down! Not sure what to cheer for!?!

    Maybe since we know McDavid is going to be insanely good we should cheer more for Nurse to shut him down? We could sure use someone like Nurse sooner rather than later on the big team!

    • 916oiler

      I am cheering for McDavid as I am hoping Nurse spends a year in the AHL. I think it’s great he’s their top shut down guy, but the Oilers don’t need a top shut down guy. They need a top pairing defenceman. A guy that plays big minutes, is more than sound defensively, can score, move the puck, and play on either the PP or PK. Nurse might become that guy, but he needs to come into the AHL and immediately pass everyone on the depth chart and be a force down there. Then, and only then, should he come up and hopefully be paired with a top pairing right side D man who he can learn from. Otherwise I fear it will be along disappointing road for Nurse.

      But McDavid? He needs to come into the NHL on fire. So while Nurse has the luxury to work on his game for another year or so, McDavid does not.

  • BillHK

    I think the main difference is that Eakins got fairly decent goaltending from Scrivens and Fasth at the end of the year. Despite a couple of game from Bachman the goaltending was mostly atrocious for Nelson, especially near the end Scrivens was brutal. Our star players and players who didn’t seem to develop under Eakins all were much better under Nelson.

    I say Nelson deserves the opportunity, but also think Nelson with a proven veteran coach is not a bad idea either. I think it would suck to lose Nelson who looks very promising as a coach.