Photo Credit: Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports

Is Darnell Nurse going to develop into an impact defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers?

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 25 LD Darnell Nurse

A year ago, I took a stab at projecting the future of Darnell Nurse, and ended up with a wide range of possible results. My conclusion at the time was that Nurse might dramatically over- or under-achieve, but that a reasonable midpoint projection was as a solid second pair defenceman. I added that we’d know a lot more a year down the road.

At least one part of that prediction was wrong, because we’re now a year down the road and the truth is that we still don’t have anything resembling certainty with regards to Nurse’s eventual ceiling.

The key problem with Nurse’s year was an ugly midseason injury. He had surgery in December to repair ligament and bone damage in his ankle and ended up missing three months of action. When he came back, it took him a bit of time to find his way back to his previous level of play. It probably isn’t a coincidence that his on-ice shot metrics took a dive after he returned to the lineup:

  • Hourly Corsi, pre-injury: 59 for, 52 against (plus-7/hour)
  • Hourly Corsi, post-injury: 52 for, 57 against (minus-5/hour)

(Naturally, this isn’t all Nurse. One complicating factor is that he often played with Matt Benning post-injury, at a point where Benning’s own play had slipped, possibly thanks to a hard collision with Carolina’s Viktor Stalberg.)

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I had been impressed with Nurse’s development pre-injury, in large part because he’d shown the ability to be part of a positive puck-possession pairing next to Eric Gryba.

The wrinkle was that the pairing had been outscored by the opposition, and when I dug into the video in late November I found that a lot of the problem were tiny errors of execution by Nurse against top opponents – players like Rick Nash and Jamie Benn. On the whole, that left me optimistic about his NHL future:

From a development perspective, it’s hard to be disappointed with that. Nurse has shown this year that he can be part of a pairing that drives play in the right direction, which is something poor NHLers never manage and something he struggled with as a rookie. The things that are getting him in trouble are small mistakes against great players, the kind of mistakes that, with time, should be ironed out.

Those little mistakes with and without the puck against great players aren’t the only drawbacks to Nurse’s game, of course. His decision-making with the puck overall can be problematic at times. Nurse is capable of making an outlet pass but too often defaults to the hard-around clear or skating the puck out himself, choices which prevent the Oilers from transitioning to the attack as quickly as they otherwise might.

There is also some reason to be concerned about Nurse’s career trajectory. He saw both the quality of competition and his overall ice-time slashed in 2016-17, playing three minutes less per night on average than he did a year ago. This happened for all sorts of reasons – an improved Oilers depth chart, that injury, possibly an increased emphasis on player development – but as a general rule players who see their ice-time cut like that in their early 20’s are moving in the wrong direction.

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I mention those concerns mostly as a way of showing both sides of the issue, though. I like Nurse’s skillset; moreover I was impressed with his development prior to injury. His tools have always been appealing: He’s big and mobile, and plays with both a natural mean streak and comfort handling the puck. The question was always whether he’d equal the sum of his parts.

His work in a reduced role in 2016-17 suggests to me that the answer to that question is yes, and that his struggles as a rookie were mostly a result of being asked to do too much, too quickly.

Fortunately for the Oilers, there’s no need to rush to judgment on whether or not Nurse is going to ultimately become an impact player. He’s exempt from this summer’s expansion draft, and there’s another season to go on his entry-level contract before he needs a new deal. The logical course at this point is to let 2017-18 play out before making any firm decisions.

Bottom line: Next season looms large for Nurse, whose career could still go in a number of different directions. However, isolating his work pre-injury suggests a player moving in the right direction.

Previous year-end reviews:

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    So he might still develop into an impact 1st pairing dman (he has the tools!).
    Or he might settle into a solid second-pairing role.
    Or maybe he’s a career third-paring dman if his decision making and hockey making stalls.

    Uh… okay then! 🙂 At least we’re pretty sure he’s NHL-calibre (when healthy…)

    • Oilerchild77

      That would seem to make sense for the Oilers, who need more righties. That is, until we notice that Nurse has way more upside and that, while Trouba is also a good young dman, his value is largely based on the fact that he’s an RHD.

  • WhoreableGuy

    He’s going to be amazing just have to fine tune some of his NHL game.

    It was only a couple short years ago at the WJHC 2015 Gold Medal game he was named Canada’s Player of the Game. He was picked over guys like McDavid, Domi, Duclair, Theodore, Ritchie, Morrissey, Lazar, Point, and Crouse.

    Actually he wasn’t even on the ice for an even strength goal the entire tournament.

    • Oilerchild77

      Nurse is only going to get better. He was actually pretty impressive at times in the playoffs. I find it hard to believe he’ll only become a third pairing guy. He’ll be a very good top-4 dman for a long time.

  • btrain

    Did he not have his minutes slashed from last season as a result of Klefbom’s injury issues?
    Anyway, love the player, I think of all the Oilers D he has the best skill set to be a formidable 1st pairing guy. That said, having the skillset is one thing but knowing how to use it is another. He certainly has much development to go and maybe the top pairing is a far reach, but I think a solid second pairing is likely.

  • oilerjed

    So far Nurse has 115 gp in 2ish broken seasons. In both he showed the promise of great things to come. Next year Nurse will have a breakout season just in time to get locked up at a decent $$ and term.
    Book it!

  • Oil9744

    I think Nurse should focus more on being a stay at home defencemen like Larsson, he likes to jump up in to plays all the time but quite often leaves the defence very vulnerable on the back end, and he doesn’t have that much offencive flare to be doing that, If Nurse can try to play like Larsson I think he will be an excellent shut down Dman and probably the best one on the Oilers eventually, maybe paid him up with an offencive right shot Dman like Bear?

    • Donnie

      I am not so sure about that, he has the ability to carry the puck up the ice and jumps up in the play at the right times. It goes without saying in the D zone he will be a beast, love his overall aggressive play.

  • Jason Gregor

    The other thing you need to factor post injury, is that he returns to the lineup and has to play catch up. Most players, especially when injury is a ankle, knee or hip, take time to get back up to speed. It will be the same for Sekera next year, which is why I think Nurse could be even more valuable next year, because even if Sekera is back in the lineup in January, I wouldn’t expect him to be at the same level as this season until February or even March.

    • Florescent Oil Orange

      Shultz Yakupov and many other players are clear examples of how the former Oilers ,lack of proper player development and the coaching carousel. Damaged hindered and or ruined many young prospects in the system. Shultz to his credit has been able to take advantage of an opportunity in Pittsburgh hopefully yak and many other ruined oiler prospects can do the same.

      I strongly urge we as a fan base do not let the team forget the lessons learned in this dark period of time

      • Cowbell_Feva

        The only reason Schultz is considered to be good right now, is because he stands at the top of a PP with Kessel, Malkin and Crosby on the ice at the same time. Had Letang not been injured there would be no mention of him, and he would have 1/4 of the points.

        He is still soft as warm butter and terrible in his own end. They can have that cream puff.

  • Oiler Al

    He can be a puck hauling defense man, but McLellan wants his guys to ring the puck up the boards all night long.Before we trade him to the Penguins lets recall how Schultz developed .PS.. Hedman took several years to develop… lets be patient.

  • Florescent Oil Orange

    In alot of articles I read about how the Oilers don’t have to worry about expansion draft with player x(in this case nurse). Do we really think the NHL is going to stay at 31 teams….. I think it is pretty clear when they silicates bids they fully intended to add two teams. Only reason Quebec did not get a team is balance of conferences. That will be a relocation thing. So the other shoe will drop in the next few off season Seattle or maybe even Kansas will get a team and all the young Oilers who are exempt from expansion will no longer be exampt

  • Great athlete, bit of a vacancy sign on the bucket where the Skoda label goes on an IIHF lid. Be a heck of a winger but NHL coaching is constrained by its neanderthal need to try to put square pegs in round holes.

  • OilHorse

    Nurse has improved every year he plays all the way back in his years in the juniors.

    Don’t see any reason he won’t continue this.

    You can almost see that the game is slowing down for him, he is much more patient with the puck and he is forcing less plays.

  • bazmagoo

    It was great seeing Nurse take his game to another level in the playoffs, he’s definitely got a bright future!

    Still has #1 dman potential, in my opinion.

  • russ99a

    If the only metrics used to evaluate defensemen have nothing to do with defense, then you’re overrelying on a single CF% number that not only refers to everyone else on the ice with that player, but also does not show a player’s complete value.

    Please add HDSC, GAA, entry and exit data, the game isn’t all about Corsi For.