This platform has spared not a drop of digital ink musing on the future of Darnell Nurse. When we last checked in on the most likely outcome of Nurse’s career, it was none other than Jonathan Willis who pegged him as a future three or four on the Oilers blue line.
In 2016, I tentatively pegged Darnell Nurse as a future No. 3/4 D: https://t.co/3hoHcBjKNu
Still see that as the most probable eventuality.
— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) July 22, 2017
At the time, Willis looked at a long and thorough list of roughly similar players to Nurse based on their age, mileage and production to determine the high and low ends of a reasonable projection for the former seventh overall pick. At the high-end, Marc-Edouard Vlasic appears, and opposite him, you have the likes of Brayden Schenn and Jared Cowen. Naturally, Willis concluded that the most likely outcome was somewhere in between these two polar opposites as it concerns quality.
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.
Not only was Willis right about the quality of the player, but it appears as though he had the timing down pat, too. Here we are, little over a year removed from this article, and Nurse has been a rare bright spot for an Oilers club that’s been sputtering out of the gates.
Through the Oilers first eight games of the season, Nurse has shown up in every imaginable way except the score sheet — sound familiar? Against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, that meant standing up for Jujhar Khaira and taking on a reigning heavyweight champ and full-time pugilist Ryan Reaves for the trouble. On most night’s, though, he’s been a solidifying force for an area of the Oilers lineup that most deemed to be a major weakness going into this season: the second pair.
With Andrej Sekera out of the lineup to start the season and beyond, Oilers head coach Todd McLellan leaned on Kris Russel and Matt Benning to step into the void. The results? Well, they reaffirmed the concerns of everyone involved.
If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, though, one has to imagine that a team with second pair concerns would have third pair terrors. That wasn’t the case, and with the events that have unfolded this season, we can look to Nurse’s arrival as a significant reason for just that.
Paired with Erik Gryba, the two hulking, physical defenders were dominant by every metric imaginable. In spite of their tertiary role, when the two were on the ice the Oiler’s share of on-ice shot attempts, goals and expected goals at even strength were significantly higher than when they were on the bench. The only area where the two lagged behind their peers was by penalty differential, and given the way McLellan wants his players to battle, I don’t think it unfair to suggest that as long as that’s relatively controlled, the coach will never accost the pair for laying the beatdown on their opposition.
And with all respect to Gryba, who is genuinely useful on the peripheries of the Oilers lineup, it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t the driving factor in the two’s surprising, though welcomed, success — it’s not often a player finds himself in his late-twenties. Nurse, 22-years-old, on the other hand, is just starting to enter the years we’ve learned to associate with a player’s peak physical performance.
It makes sense, then, that it was Nurse’s shoulder that McLellan tapped to enter into a more prominent role alongside Russell on the Oiler’s second pair. And it worked. In an otherwise awful defeat to the Ottawa Senators on October 18th, the Nurse-Russell was on the ice for a +22 five-on-five shot attempt differential and weren’t on the ice for a single goal against — they did, however, surrender one during a five-on-three penalty kill. They’ve been rolling ever since.
Heading into last night’s game against Dallas, the Oilers as a team controlled 56.82% of the on-ice shot attempts at five-on-five prior to playing Nurse on their second pair. Since then, they’re the best team in that same light, controlling 57.29% of the on-ice shot attempts at evens. As a pair, Russell and Nurse have managed 58.92% of the shot attempts at even strength and have the Oilers well north of 60% in goals and expected goals shares. Their ranking through the shot attempt lens places them fourth in the entire league among pairs with 40 or more minutes played at even strength, and one of the three pairs ahead of them is Nurse-Gryba.
The trend is consistent, and it shows that Nurse has not only developed into a capable second pairing defenceman, but that he can be relied upon to drive him and his partners success. And right on schedule, too.
About the only thing the Oilers could ask for at this stage is that his offensive development begins to mirror that of his two-way game. Nurse’s career high to date is the 11 points he posted in 44 games last season, so expectations will have to remain in check. There are reasons for well-placed optimism, though. Among defenceman with 100 or more minutes at even strength, the 18.31 individual shot attempts an hour that Nurse is responsible for ranks third, behind only Brent Burns and Oskar Klefbom; the 9.63 shots an hour that make it to the goaltender ranks second.
At some point, the Oilers are going to stop shooting at 2.44% at five-on-five when Nurse is on the ice; so too will Nurse start to convert on the immense shot volume he’s generating. Certainly, the 0.4 individual expected goals Nurse is generating suggests as much.
Filling an Andrej Sekera sized hole in the second pair was always going to be a lot to ask of the Oiler’s defensive depth. Luckily for them, it doesn’t seem you can count Nurse among that group anymore. Far from a depth piece, Nurse is a driving force in the Oilers underlying dominance at five-on-five, and sooner than later, the score sheet will start to reflect it.