Does Darnell Nurse need time in the AHL, or can he step in and help the Oilers right now?
It is one of the burning questions heading into training camp. I believe his play will have the biggest impact on how the blueline shapes ups early in the season.
I don’t mean I expect him to have the largest impact in every game, but he is the biggest wildcard when it comes to projecting how the blueline will shape up.
Most agree Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom and Mark Fayne have a spot in the top-two pairings, but after that it is wide open.
Yesterday, Matt Henderson wrote the Oilers blueline is crowded and mentioned one-way contracts as a key reason Nurse and Griffin Reinhart would start in the AHL. His theory has played out many times in other NHL cities, so I understand his reasons, but in this instance it shouldn’t be a factor.
The talent/skill/ability on the Oilers blueline has been the worst in the NHL for the past five seasons. They must ice the best players, and I believe Nurse is one of them.
The Oilers won’t be afraid to put Nikita Nikitin on waivers and send him to the AHL. If someone claims him, great, if not he’ll be a $3.55 million cap hit playing in the minors. Peter Chiarelli did not sign Nikitin, so he won’t feel any pressure of having a bad contract in the AHL. But more importantly, management recognizes their team’s on-ice performance must improve this season. They can’t make their team worse by worrying about salary or other optics.
They want a competition, and if Nikitin bounces back he will have an opportunity to play. The same goes for Nurse. His age, rookie status or contract status should not be a deterrent if he proves he is one of their best six defenders.
There is also the thought process that Nurse would be better off developing in the AHL. I agree it wouldn’t hurt him, but I don’t think playing in the NHL will stunt his development either.
He skates extremely well.
He is big enough.
He is strong enough.
He will get stronger in the coming years, but he will not be man-handled by NHL veterans on a regular basis this season.
I looked at other D-men who were recently drafted in the top-15, then played two more years of junior and debuted in the NHL at 20 years of age.
Dion Phaneuf (9th in 2003). He played all 82 games and played the most total minutes of any Flames defender in 2005/2006. He averaged the 4th most per game, 21:43, behind Robyn Regehr, Roman Hamrlik and Jordan Leopold. The Flames made the playoffs.
Brent Seabrook (14th in 2003) played on a bad Blackhawks team who finished 28th overall in 2005/2006. He averaged 20:01/game and played 69 games. The Hawks traded Jaroslav Spacek to the Oilers in January and Seabrook played more in the second half. Seabrook and Duncan Keith, after two years in AHL, both debuted in 2005 and started the foundation of becoming one of the best tandems in the NHL.
Jack Johnson (3rd in 2005). He played two years of college after being drafted, was traded from Carolina to LA and debuted with the Kings in 2007. He played 21:41/game, behind Lubomir Visnovsky (22:59) and Rob Blake (22:44) and ahead of Brad Stuart (21:13), Jaroslav Modry (18:34) and Tom Preissing (17:52). The Kings finished 29th.
Marc Stall (12th in 2005) made his NHL debut in 2007 for the Rangers. He played 18:48/game and was the 4th/5th D-men behind Michal Rozsival, Dan Girardi, Fedor Tyutin and Marek Malik. The Rangers made the playoffs and won a series. Stall averaged 22:20/game in the playoffs, second only to Rozsival.
Alex Pietrangelo (4th in 2008) debuted with the Blues in 2010. He played the most total minutes over 79 games and averaged 22:00/game. Eric Brewer (22:14 in 55 games) and Erik Johnson (22:07 in 54 games) played basically the same per game. Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak and Nikita Nikitin all played fewer games and minutes than Pietrangelo. The Blues finished 11th in the west.
Jared Cowan (9th in 2009) played 81 games for the Senators in 2011. He averaged 18:53, 5th most on the D corps behind Erik Karlsson (25:18), Filip Kuba (23:36), Sergei Gonchar (22:15) and Chris Phillips (19:06). The Sens lost in seven games in round one and Cowan was again 5th among D-men with 17:01/game.
Many other D-men drafted in the top-15 since 2003 played in the NHL before they were 20: Drew Doughty, Jonas Brodin, Morgan Reilly, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, Ryan Suter, Dougie Hamilton, Adam Larsson, Cam Fowler, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitri Kulikov, Victor Hedman, Tyler Myers, Zack Bogosian, Luke Schenn, Erik Johnson and Karlsson.
The Oilers have been patient with Nurse, and many defenders from the previous 12 drafts (not including 2015) played in the NHL when they were younger than he is now. He skates well. He is big, strong and he plays with an edge, something the Oilers desperately lack. I see no reason he can’t make this team.
Phaneuf, Cowan and Stall played on playoff teams, while Pietrangelo played on a below average team and Seabrook and Johnson played on brutal teams. They learned to play in different circumstances, and were surrounded by both good and bad players.
They made teams who in most cases had better overall talent than the Oilers current blueline.
Nurse has been allowed to develop properly, and while some time in the AHL won’t hurt him, I don’t see any reason to assume he must start there.
Based on his quality of competition on the Oilers blueline, I expect we will see Nurse on the opening night roster.
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