Objectively projecting Darnell Nurse


Darnell Nurse is a fascinating player, and his long-term
career arc is of extreme importance to the Edmonton Oilers.

The most common method of projecting that sort of career arc
is the old-fashioned one: Assessing the player’s physical skills and then imagining
what he’ll look like in his prime. The one we’re going to use today is a newer method, which involves looking at what happened to players with
comparable underlying statistics.

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Neither method is definitive, as last I checked it’s still
impossible for humans to foretell the future. Both, however,  are helpful in this sort of conversation.

The first thing I had to do was assemble a list of similar
players. Hockey-Reference is indispensable for this sort of thing, and I used
its player index function to put together a
list of NHL defencemen
since the dawn of the analytics era (2007-08) at roughly
the same stage of their career as Nurse and with similar points/game totals.
Then I narrowed down that list using the following criteria:

  • I selected only players in their draft+3 season
  • Each player had to have played in at least 60 percent of his
    team’s games and have averaged at least 18 minutes per night
  • Each player needed to have a negative Corsi rating relative
    to his team

I was left with a dozen players, including Nurse himself.

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The Master List

Player Team Size Season GP PTS/GP ATOI Raw Corsi Rel. Corsi
Marc Staal NYR 6’4″, 207 2007-08 80 0.13 18.8 56.1 -0.2
Cody Ceci OTT 6’3″, 205 2014-15 81 0.26 19.3 49.4 -1.3
Luke Schenn TOR 6’2″, 229 2010-11 82 0.27 22.4 48.1 -1.6
Cam Fowler ANA 6’1″, 207 2012-13 37 0.30 20.4 47.5 -1.7
Brett Pesce CAR 6’3″, 200 2015-16 69 0.23 18.8 50.0 -2.1
Jared Cowen OTT 6’5″, 238 2011-12 82 0.21 18.9 51.5 -3.1
Marc-Edouard Vlasic SJS 6’1″, 205 2007-08 82 0.17 21.6 52.0 -4.6
Jonas Brodin MIN 6’1″, 195 2013-14 79 0.24 23.9 46.2 -4.9
Darnell Nurse EDM 6’4″, 213 2015-16 69 0.14 20.2 45.5 -5.8
Erik Gudbranson FLA 6’5″, 216 2012-13 32 0.13 18.8 46.9 -6.4
Zach Bogosian ATL 6’3″, 219 2010-11 71 0.24 22.4 47.2 -6.7
Jack Johnson LAK 6’1″, 230 2007-08 74 0.15 21.7 40.9 -10.4

That’s an interesting group of players, and I would divide
them into some broad categories:

  • Home runs: Marc-Edouard Vlasic
  • Mileage may vary: Marc Staal, Cam Fowler, Erik
    Gudbranson, Zach Bogosian, Jack Johnson
  • Disappointing players: Luke Schenn, Jared Cowen
  • Too soon to tell: Cody Ceci, Brett Pesce, Jonas Brodin,
    Darnell Nurse

Vlasic should be uncontroversial; he’s a brilliant shutdown
defenceman, one of the finest in the game of hockey. Schenn has evolved into a
serviceable player but nothing like what he was originally projected to be,
while Cowen is currently locked in a buyout dispute with Toronto.

The five players in the middle will gather differing reviews
depending on the source; all I can offer is my own take.

Staal and Gudbranson both play tough minutes but probably
aren’t suited to top-pair work; the former in particular hasn’t been the same
player since losing Anton Stralman as a partner. Fowler’s the rare puck-moving
defenceman who doesn’t drive shot metrics and also probably belongs on the
second pairing. Bogosian has never gone a full season without getting out-shot,
nor has he ever outperformed his team’s average over a full year and he’s
played for some pretty bad teams. I’ve written
about Jack Johnson previously
and not much has changed since then.

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A Closer Look

Player Season QualComp ZS Diff. PTS/60 Pen. Diff. Raw Corsi Rel. Corsi
Jack Johnson 2007-08 0.085 85 0.51 -0.6 40.9 -10.4
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 2007-08 0.034 8 0.31 0.0 52.0 -4.6
Zach Bogosian 2010-11 0.024 28 0.53 -0.3 47.2 -6.7
Marc Staal 2007-08 0.011 -92 0.43 -0.3 56.1 -0.2
Erik Gudbranson 2012-13 0.006 -31 0.35 -0.3 46.9 -6.4
Luke Schenn 2010-11 -0.011 12 0.85 -0.1 48.1 -1.6
Cam Fowler 2012-13 -0.016 -11 0.48 0.2 47.5 -1.7
Jared Cowen 2011-12 -0.025 -85 0.64 -0.3 51.5 -3.1
Darnell Nurse 2015-16 -0.028 51 0.31 -0.5 45.5 -5.8

Numbers above courtesy of Behind
the Net

  • Quality of competition is an interesting metric here.
    Johnson faced brutally tough opposition, while Vlasic and Bogosian also played
    tough minutes early on. It’s interesting to note that our disappointments –
    Schenn and Cowen – are down at the lower end of the scale, as is Nurse.
  • Zone start differential is the difference between total
    number of offensive zone and defensive zone starts (a positive number means a
    tougher assignment). Johnson, Nurse and Bogosian are at the tough end of things
    here, while we see some explanation for Staal’s relatively strong Corsi number.
  • I’m honestly not sure how useful 5-on-5 points/hour over a single
    season is for evaluating defencemen. Schenn and Cowen fared best, while Vlasic
    was at the bottom of the list here. That disparity is good news for Nurse, who
    along with Vlasic sits at the bottom of the chart.
  • Penalty differential is the gap between penalties taken and
    penalties drawn per hour. Again, there’s little clear order here, save that the
    guys who struggled on the Corsi side of things tended to struggle here as well.

Of the players on this list, the ones I see as having the
greatest similarity to Nurse statistically are Bogosian and Gudbranson, but it’s
impossible to rule out any of the outcomes on this list. At the low end, that
means Cowen and Schenn; at the high end it means Vlasic. It’s tempting to look
at his physical tools and project at the high end of the spectrum, but that
sort of reasoning would have applied equally well to Johnson and been faulty.

What we do know is that for the most part, defencemen who
played a lot at the same age as Nurse while a) not scoring much and b) getting
out-shot don’t end up having long careers as top-pairing options. Vlasic is the
exception, and did it in tough minutes on an excellent team, which naturally
tends to depress things like relative Corsi.

My guess would be that Nurse eventually settles in as a solid
second-pair defenceman, but at this stage there’s a wide variety of possible outcomes.
We’ll know a lot more a year from now.

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For those interested,
I used different criteria but got similar results when I performed a
comparable experiment
for the
Edmonton Journal back in March


  • Max

    Interesting player. Some games he looked really sharp, others? meh. He’s still a rookie, still wet behind the ears, he will get better – but if a trade option for a REAL puck moving RD came up I wouldn’t be against trading him. Needs come first.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    I still remember watching Nurse’s Greyhounds play McDavid’s Otters. Nurse was the only one that could keep up with Connor on a regular basis during that series, and iirc Nurse was playing 25-30min every game.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Nurse came into this season like a beast and by December, he’s concidered for top pairing minutes.

    He has the hands and skating like Coffey and the nastiness of Gator.

    2 more years tops and it’ll be Nurse-Larsson in the top pair.

  • FireScorpion

    Send Nurse down to the Minors. He proved last year he’s not an NHL defenseman and needs to go see if he can get his 10 cent head on straight. Jury still out on him but for now, yeah send him down. He’s not ready. Or force-feed him the ice time up here, it’s worked well for you in the past right?

      • DoubleDIon

        Based on him beating up an 18 year old half his size? Let him try on Bollig, Engelland or even Ferland. Beating up children who are smaller than you doesn’t make you tough. He wouldn’t fight Ferland last year and he’s our third best fighter.

      • FireScorpion

        Nah, I’d love to see him in Edmonton again for more of those 10 cent snap decisions he was so good at last year. Who has the Wet Nurse fought from Calgary even? I’ll wait here for your answer

        • a lg dubl dubl

          I still like the Lucic/Nurse fight. Nurse didn’t win the fight, but Lucic didn’t man handle Nurse either.

          Nurse would handle Ferland or Bollig no problem.

          Calgary thinks they’re “tough”.

        • Harry2

          I was at the rookie camp last year and Nurse kicked Keenan Kanzigs ass. A man who is an absolute giant 6’6″ 245lbs and a year older than Nurse.

          Its funny how you chirp a rookie dman on a defensively poor team yet look at Hamilton. A suposed stud dman who was a complete abortion last year to the tune of 5 million plus

  • Jaxon

    I like Vlasic as a comparable.

    While charting NHLEs of D I found some interesting comparables of players who were drafted with an NHLe of 16 or lower, who progressed in their draft+1 season and peaked in their draft+2 season before bottoming out in their draft+3 season similar to Nurse.

    The players with NHLes similar to Nurse’s trajectory thus far are Vlasic, Sekera, Colin Miller and Michael Stone. Based on Willis’ article, it looks like Vlasic had a very similar 3 post-draft seasons. That doesn’t mean Nurse won’t outperform any or all of them, but these players have had a similarly tough Draft+3 and bounced back to produce at decent levels in their careers. It may take some patience, though, as not all of them produced in their Draft+4, +5 or even +6 season.

    Nurse Comparables:

    That said, my eye tells me he is a beast that can carry the puck and skate like the wind. I think once his brain catches up to his body and he puts on some weight, he could end up being very productive. There were a few times this season where he made everyone on the ice look slow and small. He just didn’t know what to do with the puck once he got below the goal line so quickly. Once he figures it all out, look out.

    The left side looks pretty damn strong, especially projected into the future with the possibility of Klefbom, Paigin, Nurse and even LaLeggia living up to their potentials. Not sure where Sekera fits in once they all mature a bit.

  • beloch

    Vlasic was actually in his second full NHL season at 20, which is the season used here for comparison. He played top pairing minutes and, although he probably had to be propped up by McLaren a tad, his raw corsi indicates he was ready for the #2D job at age 20. Nurse, on the other hand, was in his first NHL season at 20 and played second pairing minutes. Unlike Vlasic, he clearly was not ready for that role. That’s a significant degree of divergence between these two players, so Vlasic really isn’t a comparable player to Nurse.

    On the bright side, some defenders figure it out late and, although they make the NHL years after Vlasic did, they can still become top pairing options. TJ Brodie, for example, was still splitting his time between the AHL and NHL in his 22-year-old season. There’s a lot to be said for letting defenders ripen in the AHL.

    Nurse could probably use more time in the AHL. I wouldn’t write him off as a top pairing guy simply because he’s definitely no Vlasic, but lots of great defenders took a longer route to the NHL. Send him down and be patient. Hopefully no permanent damage was done last season.