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.
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.
“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.
KEEFE CHALLENGES 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.
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.
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.
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