Photo Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Nurse creating offence

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.

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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.

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“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.

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Apr 8, 2017; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) battles for the puck against Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin (33) during the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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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.

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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.


Apr 18, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) hits San Jose Sharks right wing Timo Meier (28) during the second period in game four of the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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“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?

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“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.

  • Oilers8597

    Nobody has to side with more different defensive partners then Nurse, he’s been with Gryba, Benning, and even Larsson some nights, while Klefbomb is almost always paired up with Larsson every night, I think Nurse should have a more consistent partner and Gryba isn’t it, Nurse needs more of a stay at home defencemen to play with so he’s allowed to jump up in the play more, much like Klefbomb is allowed to cause Larsson is the rock back there, maybe try Nurse with Larsson for a couple games and give him some power play time if the Oilers really want to see what they can get out of Nurse and I bet they won’t be disappointed. Maybe Nurse and Russel in the middle pair if they don’t wanna give him top line minutes yet.

    • Jason Gregor

      Sekera struggled big time on right side with Nurse two years ago. Coming off a knee injury I’d want him on the left side and stay as comfortable as possible. I’d play Sekera with Benning and Nurse with Russell when Sekera is back. Nurse and Russell have been solid at EV. PK they need to be better, but at EV, they have been fine.

      • ShakyDS

        With the way he is progressing, do you think he sees some PP time this year sooner or later? With the way the PP has struggled and with Klefboms shooting woes, isn’t sooner the better answer?

        • Jason Gregor

          Klefbom has some sort of ailment and I see it impacting his shot. I don’t think they will rush Nurse. Benning isn’t on either PP right now and I think he’d get first crack ahead of Nurse right away.

  • OriginalPouzar

    Its only been 9 games so we need to see if Nurse will be able to play the way he has consistantly but he’s had a phenomenal start to the season and at a time when the Oilers needed it the most – with Sekera out and none of the other internal replacements stepping up.

    Great job Daryl!

  • RJ

    Time to trade Klefbom for a RW, and Nurse can manage top pairing minutes.

    Seriously though, good on Darryl for continuing to improve. There were a lot of doubts about him in his rookie season.

  • slats-west

    Any thoughts about getting Daryl some PP play time?

    He has a hard shot can move laterally well on blue line and if required make a solid dman play. Not sure why McL hasn’t tried him there more.

  • Petrolero

    I’m gonna call a conspiracy theory right now and say Nurse won’t see pp time because chiarelli wants to keep his negotiating power as low as possible. This is a contract year for the guy after all. Even though he is a RFA, the more he scores the more money or term his agent will ask for.

    • OriginalPouzar

      You are probably right that Nurse won’t see material PP time but likely very incorrect on the reasoning. Its very much has nothing to do with his RFA status and everything to do with the fact that blueline PP skills are exactly the skill set that Nurse currently lacks in – decision making at the offensive blueline and shot. Those are the skills needed on the PP and those are the skills that Darnell currently doesn’t have. Klef, Skera, Benning, Russel, Auvitu – those are the PP options at this point.

      I think Darnell can get there – not this year though.

  • Connor McFly

    Read David Staples article with original comments by Dave Lozo. His obserations relating to Chis’s poor GM-ing came not from the usual local media sycophants but from outside the Oilers organization. The net depletion of talent, the squandering of draft picks and the huge overpay on contracts like Russell and Drai are going to or have crippled the Oil. Check the standings.

    • Big Nuggets

      I think Chia has made numerous mistakes but saying look at the standings after 9 games and saying this is all Chia’s fault is rather troll like behaviour. As for depletion of talent, on the defence I would say our talent and prospect depth is much improved. Benning, Jones, Bear, Mantha, numerous acquisitions with promising futures. Not to mention the Larsson trade, which some count as a mistake but I am still quite pleased with it.

    • FISTO Siltanen

      Not sure the complaints are legit about Chiarelli. He didn’t have the luxury of coming in here promising another 5 year proper rebuild. So some of his moves had urgency behind them.

      From there, okay, the Reinhart trade didn’t work out. Stuff happens. I’d love to hear him off the record explain that deal but I’ve read the Oilers said they weren’t taking Barzal with that pick.

      People complain about Lucic but he has been a 50 point player getting paid $6M a season throughout his career. All Oiler fans said they needed that guy for the front 6. They sign him. For $6M. He brings invaluable leadership for this crew – listen to guys talk about him. He brings swagger. He relaxes the room – one of his rules is two hours after a game we forget about it, win or lose. These were necessary elements to add to this locker room. Last year people complained he got all his points on the PP. This year he doesn’t have one. But he’s on pace for 45 ES points. Not sure what people are complaining about.

      And his contract has 3 more years after this one with trade exemptions. After that there are two years left and if they move him on July 2nd of his second last year the team getting him only owes him $6.5M. There will be interest.

      Russell – do the Oilers sign him with a healthy Sekeras? He had some leverage and used it. Look at the Rangers – they signed Brendan Smith for same term and another $350K a season. Chiarelli is paying in the market values.

      And if you think they overpaid for McDavid and Draisaitl keep in mind Sabres just paid Eichel $10M season.

      He has begun restocking the farm. I see two potential draft picks burned by the Oilers the first in the GR trade and the Tyler Benson deal. Yes, I would’ve taken Alex Debrincat but I also wouldn’t have touched Alex Galchenyuk with a 10′ pole at the 2012 draft. Sometimes these bets pay off. Sometimes they don’t. Kid has been in the organization for 14 months. Let’s see if he can get healthy.

      I don’t agree with everything Chiarelli does. I would’ve pursued either Jagr or Iginla this offseason. And right now I might consider moving JP for a defensemen like Trouba. But I can see why Chiarelli wouldn’t as well.

      That’s my 2¢

    • Jason Gregor

      You are certain Draisaitl is an overpayment? Based on what? Him playing five games? Lozo yelled and swore a lot. We all said numerous times the Reinhart trade was a bad move. Guess what every GM makes a bad move. Go look at Hawks drafting record around Kane and Toews…They squandered a #3 and a #7. But still won.

      And Russell is playing top four minutes. He leads Oilers D in points thus far. Russell might be one year too long, but his final year of his deal makes him incredibly easy to trade. Easy to focus on bad moves a GM makes, but facts don’t lie. He has made more good moves than bad.