If Darnell Nurse wants to play in the NHL to start the year,
then he’s going to have to do more than prove he can play at that level. What he really needs to do is outplay incumbents to
such a degree that it’s impossible to choose them over him.
One might even say that’s an almost impossible task…if they didn’t
watch the Oilers play in Edmonton last night. The team appears to have a
pretty significant problem with the pairing of Nikitin and Ference. These two
players, by my eye, looked immobile.
We should start by saying it’s
preseason and this was their first game in months, but goodness gracious that
was not a great outing by a couple of players who are competing for their jobs.
And make no mistake, Ference and Nikitin are competing for their jobs. Their
careers hang by frayed bits of thread. Ference is reaching the twilight of his
career at 36 years of age and Nikitin is just months away from the end of his
NHL career if he can’t turn things around.
That’s why it was incredibly disheartening to hear our very
own Jason Gregor report from camp that Nikitin has looked more like a turnstile
than an NHL blue liner. Even Bob Stauffer from the Oilers Radio Network has
commented that Nikitin has had a tough camp to date. It was even more
demoralizing to see $4.5 million dollars on the salary cap get walked around by
the Flames’ nobodies who dressed in the Edmonton game.
Outside of one NHL caliber line the Flames played their
prospect forwards in the City of Champions (or whatever city council wants to
call us now). It’s that fact that makes seeing Nikitin and Ference (though to a
lesser degree) appear slow so frightening. And it would have been nice if Nikitin looked competent during his six (!) minutes of power play time. Sadly, he did
Compare the two lineups and you can see that the Oilers’ D in
Calgary was tasked with a much more difficult assignment. While Nikitin was
taking on Klimchuk, Jones, and Bouma, the squad in Calgary had to deal with
Gaudreau, Monahan, Hudler, Frolik and the best set of puck movers the Flames
Despite the obviously tougher opposing roster and playing as
the away team, Darnell Nurse managed to stand out for all the right reasons. He
showed his mobility, toughness, and finished the game with strong possession
We already knew that if you just watched Nurse skate beside
the likes of Nikitin or Ference it wouldn’t look like there’s much of a choice
because Nurse is an incredible skater and athlete, but it’s about effectiveness
too. Being able to skate like the wind is fantastic but if it doesn’t coincide
with getting the job done then it’s just fancy footwork.
For Nurse, though, that skating ability translates to
getting to the puck faster and getting it out of danger areas easier. Nurse
made the highlight reels last night because he took on the 6’7” Hunter Smith in
a fight. It sounds like it was a fight he didn’t have much of a choice partaking in, as
he was asked three times to dance with someone from the Flames.
He took on a giant whose helmet stayed on during the fight
(I know that’s the rule but magically Nurse’s came off), and bloodied his nose
in the process. Actually it looks like his nose exploded, but that’s neither
here nor there. Even though the fight is what most people will remember, it was
Nurse’s puck retrieval skills that caught the attention of the coach before
that. That’s part of the benefit to being an incredible skater.
As for Nurse’s possession, against a stacked Flames roster
on the road he managed to finish the game with a 68% Corsi For with 50% Offensive Zone starts. We’re all in preseason form so just as a reminder we’re talking about the Oilers having two thirds of the shot attempts
while Nurse (and LaLeggia) were on the ice even though he spent half his
time starting in the defensive zone.
It was one game — one preseason game. Even though Nurse
outplayed the men he needed to outplay to earn that spot on the Oilers, it’s
still not enough. He needs to do it again, and again, and again. Nurse needs to
be better than them every time, all the time. Even then it might not be enough
because life isn’t fair. However, he’s starting on the right foot.