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.)
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.
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.