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.
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.
The Master List
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,
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.
A Closer Look
Numbers above courtesy of Behind
- 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.
For those interested,
I used different criteria but got similar results when I performed a
comparable experiment for the Edmonton Journal back in March.
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