Darnell Nurse arrives in pro hockey during a period of transition for the Edmonton Oilers organization. The club is feeling the burden of inflated contracts from under-performing veterans while also wanting to be patient with close to NHL-ready options. We know men like Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference have a ‘due date’ that extends to the end of their current deals, but could strong performances by the youngsters during training camp and in the fall hasten their departure?
Based on the current depth chart for Edmonton’s defense it’s going to be very difficult to make a case that Edmonton is doing everything possible to make the 2016 playoffs. The recent signing of Cody Franson by the Buffalo Sabres cemented Peter Chiarelli’s 2015-16 defense as being Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, Mark Fayne and question marks, distant bells and also-ran’s.
Where does Darnell Nurse fit in the current depth chart?
Chiarelli: “He’s (Nurse) been a good leader out there,
but there’s a lot of nuances to a defensive game that he has to smooth
out. The enthusiasm is there and there’s a lot of good parts, but the
puck retrievals and when to funnel off passes and such has to get
better. It’ll come. He’ll skate into a funnel (of players) a bit, but
those things will come from coaching. He’s exuberant and a real
coachable kid.” Source
A good, veteran organization would make damn good and sure those weaknesses and rough edges were smoothed out with a year (or so) in the minors. I’m not convinced that will be the case with Edmonton for two reasons:
- The Oilers are NOT a patient organization. Nurse is 20 years old — that’s ancient for an Oilers first-round pick to play his debut NHL season. The last 20-year pick who waited that long to play his rookie season in the show? Jordan Eberle, 2010-11.
- The Oilers do NOT have the kind of depth that allows them the luxury of developing players in a traditional manner.
So, the question (for me) comes down to this: Is Peter Chiarelli willing to flush one season of McDavid’s entry-level deal in order to burn off the Nikitin and Purcell contracts, lessen the blow of a one-year buyout on the Ference contract and use that money to fix the defense next season?
The answer appears to be yes. And part of that ‘flushing’ may be the decision to use veterans like Nikitin in front of Nurse in order to make certain the team has better quality and depth a year from now. I vehemently disagree with the idea of wasting this year, but am on board with keeping Nurse in the minors if there is development needed.
There’s another possibility here and it goes like this: The Oilers, being of sound mind and body, have decided that the ‘fourth’ to Sekera-Klefbom-Fayne is in fact Griffin Reinhart. It would explain the massive draft day trade, Peter Chiarelli’s comments on Nurse (who looked damn good at last year’s TC) and the hesitation to move on guys like Cody Franson this summer.
Bob Green at the time of the Reinhart deal: “He’s got elite hockey sense, he’s 6’4”, he’s a defencemen; we need
defencemen. He won a Memorial Cup, he was the captain. He would have
taken us there I believe when he was 18 but he got injured in the
Conference Final that year and we took Portland to six games and maybe
we could have won that series had we had him in the lineup. Did he
struggle this year in the American League? I guess he did, but I believe
in Griffin as a player and I think he’s going to be just fine… He’s a
horse. He can play all night. He’s 6’4”, he can move the puck, he’s got
elite hockey sense, he’s got great hands. He’s the complete package that
you want in a defenceman who is 20 years old.” Source
Peter Chiarelli to Bob McKenzie (on his believing Griffin Reinhart being an NHL defenseman right now): “That’s
fair. There’s a little bit of lead time that he has to get up and
running. He has to make our team. We’ve got 8 or 9 D who are
challenging. I believe he is, yeah. What I saw from him in the Memorial
Cup. I know his year last year wasn’t great and there’s reasons behind
that and that really is—not excuses—but there are reasons that explain
it. But what I saw in the Memorial Cup is that you’ve got a player here
who can dominate, that can lug the puck, and that can make plays. And
for a bigger sized man, he can move well, and I would expect him to be
in the top 4 at some point.”
Those two quotes, when compared to Chiarelli’s verbal on Nurse, perhaps allow us a small peak into the boardroom on Kingsway and the overall thought process for 2015-16 blue. Reinhart himself seems to have an excellent awareness about what it might take to make it to the NHL and things he needs to work on.
Griffin Reinhart on his first year of pro hockey: “I think it
was a little inconsistent, I had stretches where I wasn’t playing very
well and maybe a little bit frustrated and disappointed maybe I wasn’t
up in the big league but when I was playing well I played extremely
well and was able to keep up—especially in some of the games I got to
play up in the NHL. I thought I handled myself well and it’s always a
confidence booster when you do play well at that level.”
Griffin Reinhart’s things to work on: “There’s a lot of
things. I’m always going to work on every part of my game. I think the
biggest focus is agility, skating and making sure I stay low and in a
good hockey position. I think sometimes I tend to have straight legs
almost and that may costs me a little bit, but that’s something I’m
working on this summer.“
We don’t know what we don’t know, and can only project the past onto the future. I believe Nurse and Reinhart are likely destined to have long and productive careers in Edmonton, but am today less certain of the ‘order of entry’ than I have been in the past. Peter Chiarelli’s words reflect the organization—how can we draw a different conclusion?—and those words suggest Griffin Reinhart is the next man up beginning as soon as opening night 2015-16.
How good can he be? It’s a difficult question to answer. I’m reminded of just how good he looked in junior and especially during the final weeks of his amateur career:
Megan Richardson: “What is there to say about
Griffin Reinhart? Here’s a guy who played probably every even strength
shift against the Petan line or the De Leo line, two monster entry and
possession lines. At the beginning of the regular season, those six
players carried the puck in an average of 84% of the time. And yet,
playing against that top competition, he had the greatest percentage of
break-ups and fewest shot attempts against per entry of all Edmonton’s
defensemen, rivaled only by Irving, who played cupcake minutes. To see
the true impact he had on entries, we can look at his defensive partner
Ashton Sautner, no slouch himself, and see how he got burned. After
seeing this, I don’t disagree with his choice as MVP of the series.” Source
Griffin Reinhart could be in the opening night top six for the Edmonton Oilers and might be playing up the lineup by season’s end. Darnell Nurse might spend the season in Bakersfield improving on those things that keep him from the NHL.
Reading the Oilers verbal of recent days, that’s a reasonable conclusion. Is it the right one? I would have signed Cody Franson.
Photo by Rob Ferguson, all rights reserved.