The Oklahoma City Barons have signed Darnell Nurse to an
amateur tryout as they prep for the second round of the AHL playoffs. Nurse
finished his CHL career just a few days ago at the hands of junior hockey’s
most dynamic player, but he closes the book on his OHL career while considered by
many to be the best defenseman in the league. The ATO will prevent him from
burning a year on his ELC.
Nurse, only a few months into his 20’s, completed four years of
his junior eligibility thanks to a lone bit of clarity by the Oilers in the
early goings of last season. He could have stayed up for longer, much longer,
but after just two games last year the Oilers sent him back to the OHL one last
time to develop. It was probably the best decision they made in October. The time with the NHL at the beginning of the year, some
injuries, and the World Junior Championships meant he played fewer games with
the Soo than any year prior, but it was an important development year for him.
The gurus at Team Canada made a grave mistake in 2013-2014
not taking Nurse. Their defense was their Achilles heel and Nurse was sitting
at home instead of skating 20+ minutes per game for his country. This year they
didn’t make that same error. Team Canada stopped playing politics and roster
games in an effort to select the best team available, and it worked.
Nurse played a huge role in Canada’s gold medal performance.
He logged a ton of minutes and was never on the ice for an even strength goal
against. In that final, gold medal-winning match he was named Team Canada’s
player of the game.
He was drafted 7th overall in 2013 by the Oilers
to one day patrol their back end as a leader. So far he’s still tracking that
way. His offense isn’t dynamic, but he’s not a rover. You wouldn’t confuse him
for a forward like you could Justin Schultz on any given night. That said, it’s
not like we’re talking about Derian Hatcher here.
The Greyhound’s captain was still 6th in OHL
defensemen points per game (0.92) and scored 10 goals in just 36 regular season games
this year. In fact, offensively, he has progressed every single year including
this one where his stated goal was to become better defensively. The aim was to
do less running around, something you can do when you skate better than
virtually everyone on the ice, and be better positioned.
And skating is something this young man can do for days. Not
getting to watch most of his games it’s difficult to get a handle on his
ability. We saw what he did in Oilers training camp, two pre-season games and at the WJC, but my eyes weren’t fully opened until he was
tethered to Connor McDavid in the series against the Otters.
McDavid is the most dynamic skater I’ve ever seen in my
adult life and Darnell Nurse was tasked to be his shadow. That assignment could
have made anybody look like a pylon but Nurse showed very well. He threw
everything he had at McDavid (still mostly in vain) but he played between 30
and 35 minutes on a few nights and these games didn’t go to OT.
“I believe he’s the best defencman in the OHL right now.” Knoblauch on Nurse.
— OilersNow (@OilersNow) May 4, 2015
He’s going to be a professional until he retires
maybe 15-18 years from now (if all goes well), and it starts with the Barons. I’m
not sure how quickly it will take him to adjust to the next level, but he’s got
the talent and the experience to perform there.
Nurse is big, mean, talented, and driven. That’s a fantastic
combination of qualities for both him and the Oilers. It’s why he was drafted
so high. It’s why he helped take Canada to gold. It’s why he’s still a
blue chip prospect today.
He faces an uphill battle making the Oilers out of camp just
based on the contract status of several blueliners on the team. Martin Marincin will
need to go on waivers if the team wants to send him to Bakersfield next fall.
Nikitin is making 4.5 Million dollars (!) and if he’s still here at training
camp then there’s little chance they don’t try to salvage something from him.
Ference has a NMC and the C sewn to his sweater. Then there’s Klefbom who is
going to be Nurse’s teammate for a decade if Edmonton gets it their way.
The point is that there just might not be room on that left
side…yet. And that’s not the worst thing. There is a long list of extremely
talented and effective defensemen who played in the AHL to start their careers,
if even for half a season.
Now if he comes to camp and performs better than a few of
the aforementioned players, I’ll start to get a little twitchy, but I think
it’s better for him to be buried in the minors playing 25 minutes a night in
the AHL than stuck on the 3rd pairing in Edmonton playing 15 with
limited PP opportunities.
But before all that, he gets to break in with the Barons
starting Thursday against the Utica Comets. The team’s prospect pool is deepest
on defense, but nobody at the AHL level has the upside of a Darnell Nurse. That
probably doesn’t mean a whole lot to the coaching staff who made it this far
with the guys they have though. I don’t expect he’ll be gifted a lot of minutes
right out of the gate, but with Nurse the Oilers have shown a willingness to
play his development slow and steady. And that’s a big reason why he’s the quality prospect he is today.