In his final two years with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Darnell Nurse produced 83 points in 100 games. Those are huge numbers for a defenceman, but coming out of junior and in his first few seasons in the NHL, most looked at Nurse as more of a defensive, hard-nosed defender instead of someone who could produce offence.
As a rookie in 2015/2016 Nurse averaged 20:13/game. The Oilers weren’t very good and Nurse faced the opposition’s first lines most nights, often paired with Sekera playing his off-wing. It was not an ideal scenario. Most teams don’t want to force a rookie to regularly face Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar or Patrick Kane, and do so with a partner playing out of position.
Understandably, Nurse struggled. But he also learned a lot.
He is a very confident person. Despite some rough nights he didn’t lose his confidence. He believed he could play in the NHL, but he had to relax.
The most difficult aspect of playing defence in the NHL is learning to read and react to the play correctly. You have to make split second decisions, and if you react wrong, you’ll likely get beat, especially when playing against elite forwards.
Nurse’s skating is his best asset. He is one of the best skaters on the Oilers, and he is excellent at transporting the puck. His problem was once he got to the offensive blueline, the play often died on his stick.
Fast forward two years and with only 124 NHL games under his belt, Nurse looks much more comfortable on the ice. Through nine games he has been the Oilers most consistent defender.
“It is the most comfortable I’ve been for sure”, said Nurse prior to Thursday’s game. “I feel like I’m moving my legs and getting myself in the right positions and playing smarter. Obviously there is still room for improvement. I’m not content at all. I’m very confident in the way it has started, but it has to translate a little more into helping the team get on the scoreboard,” he said.
Nurse picked up two assists after our morning interview.
Quietly, Nurse produced some decent offensive numbers last season. He doesn’t play on the powerplay and he produced five goals and eleven points in just over half a season (44 games). PK Subban and Andrej Sekera had 23 EV points while Keith Yandle, Mark Giordano, Morgan Reilly and Cam Fowler had 22 EV points. Nurse was on pace for 21.
He has three assists in nine games this season, but more importantly he is creating more plays when he enters the offensive zone. The play is not routinely dying on his stick.
“Just take a deep breath and relax,” Nurse responded when asked why he is making more plays in the offensive zone. “Especially the last two years, I’d get in the O-zone and my first thought was I just didn’t want to make a mistake. At this point (now) I’m thinking, ‘take a deep breath, see a play you can make,’ and that is very different than thinking ‘get it off my stick, get it off my stick.’ That is the biggest thing, just being more calm, assess the play and if there is nothing there just get the puck to the net or put in a spot where a teammate can get it.”
The difference is very noticeable. Now when he enters the zone you are waiting to see what he’ll do, rather than expecting him to just throw the puck away. He is only 22 years of age with 124 NHL games experience. You start to wonder where his game can go in the next 200 games.
Only ten defenders had 32 or more EV points last year. Nurse doesn’t get powerplay time, which is fine, but he is starting to show the instincts he had in junior and he might be a defender who can score 25 even strength points. That would excellent production, and with every game Nurse is getting more comfortable.
We often hear how the game slows down as players gain experience, but the game seemingly gets faster every year. Has it slowed down for Nurse?
“I think the game slows down, but not as drastically as you think. It is still incredibly fast on the ice. It is more just reading and reacting. It is being able to make a read on who is in the zone, who is up ice and looking at all scenarios and what can happen. You have to process it really fast, and for me it (improvement with puck) has come from being able to read the game better and process when to go or stay back.
Nurse also has another ingredient in his game very few players in 2017 possess. He is willing to drop the gloves and will stand up for his teammates in an instant. Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Ryan Reaves, arguably the toughest player in the league, hit Jujhar Khaira. Nurse explained why he instantly challenged Reaves.
“I saw the hit out of the side of my eye and it looked worse than it actually was after seeing it on replay (laughs). I think there are other guys who would do the same and stand up for a teammate so I didn’t hesitate.
If you watch the fight you see Nurse smiling and shrugging as he drops his gloves. What did Reaves say to him?
“He was kind of surprised, and I just laughed and said, ‘May as well.’ That is how it went down (laughs). He is one of those guys you go into the fight and you don’t expect to beat him up. It was just standing up for a teammate and showing guys, ‘let’s get going a little bit,'” said Nurse.
Imagine going into a fight knowing the best outcome is likely a tie. That takes courage and Nurse didn’t hesitate for a moment.
His fearlessness combined with feeling more comfortable has Nurse emerging as an excellent defender for the Oilers. It is still way too early to label what type of defender he will be. After his rookie season some doubted his abilities, mainly due to his analytics, but I felt they overlooked the facts he was playing with a partner who isn’t great on the right side, and he was a rookie who got thrown in the deep end against top competition before he was prepared to handle it.
To Nurse’s credit, he took his lumps, but didn’t fold and lose his confidence like many players have when they’ve been put in situations they aren’t ready for. He is still learning, still improving on reading and reacting, but when you look at his junior numbers you do wonder how much offence he can provide.
More and more coaches are asking defencemen to join the rush and engage offensively, and with Nurse’s speed and ability to transport the puck, we could see him evolve into a very productive defender in both ends of the rink.
He looks comfortable, is playing with confidence and making plays.
He has the potential to be a top-pair defender and after only 124 games it is still too early to say with certainty where he will be in two, three or four years.