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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Darnell Nurse Has Arrived

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.

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.

  • freelancer

    Well said I’ve been very impressed with Nurse this season. However I don’t think he will turn into a Brayden Schenn… mostly because that Schenn is a centre 😉

  • Oilers Nation Citizen

    What impresses me the most about Nurse’s development is that he spent most of his early development in the NHL (not a development league) without the safety net of an established D-core around him.

    Can you imagine the potential in 2-3 years when Klefbom, Larsson and Nurse are seasoned playoff veterans and some or all of Jones, Bear, Mantha, Lagesson et. al. are arriving.

  • TKB2677

    I am a fan of Nurse because I believe he has all the tools to be really good. In my mind the perfect dman is the following:
    – Big.
    – Physical.
    – Tough.
    – Has a nasty side.
    – Can skate really well.
    – Defends well.
    – Can transport the puck.
    – Can move the puck.
    – Can produce points.
    I see Nurse as having all those abilities. The only thing I see him lacking that would elevate him into an elite dman is the points. I see him as a 20-30 pt guy. But other than that, he’s going to be excellent.

    To anyone that complains about Nurse’s “decision” making right now. I will counter by saying he’s got 124 NHL games of experience. That’s it. That’s 1.5 NHL seasons. The only way the majority of young players especially dmen develop better decision making on the ice is playing games. So let’s see what he is like at the end of the season.

    • Mark Lesser

      I agree with you that the decision making will only improve. Thats why I feel like we have a guy who could be a top 20 Dman in a few years. He has skill.

  • Nurse needs to work on his slap shot like Klefbom did. Nurse usually wrists the puck and that’s not effective from the point unless there’s a lucky deflection. Once Nurse has that slapper, you’ll see him on the PP more often and scoring from the point more often.

  • El Connor mcdaddy

    I think Nurse has been one of, if not our best, d-man this year so far. when he dosn’t see a pass he dosn’t just throw the puck away he uses his speed and gets the puck out himself. He has had very little give aways, and his mean streak is back. keep it up Darryl.

  • ed from edmonton

    Nurse has been the best (maybe only?) good news story of this young season. Given the axiom that it takes a Dman something between 200 and 300 games to really mature, there s plenty of upside yet to come.

  • Jordan88

    games 2 and 3 he had some lapses and preseason he was a mess. However since then what a beauty. Always been a fan and if he keeps this up he will show up on the score sheet on the regular. He is big mean mobile and can play along the boards with the best of em. Once he gets the confidence to stick handle in tight I believe he has the hands to finish plays.

  • FISTO Siltanen

    When he was drafted my brother-in-law told me he thought the Oilers got another Pronger – my favourite player. If you look at Pronger’s offense it realy didn’t come till 2000 – his 7th season in the league.

    Oilers were wise to not throw him in for Dougie Hamilton.

  • Mark Lesser

    Nurse has a lot of skill out there. Good skating, toughness. But his decision making is frustrating. Against Dallas, the last two goals scored against the Oilers can be attributed to him. Late in the second, he rushed up the ice looking for a pass. When it didn’t come, he didn’t get back into position. The Oilers ended up taking a penalty when the play went the other way, and Fallas scored on the PP. then he slashed a guy in the third period, Dallas scored on the PP. I feel like we are so close to having a stud Dman in Nurse. I love that he is taking more chances up the ice. But he needs to get back if it doesn’t quickly pan out.

  • Cauliflower McPugg

    Jim Johnson does not get enough love for his work with these young guys. He is as brilliant as Newell Brown but on the other side of the puck. Kind of surprised JJ is not as highly regarded.

  • I know Darryl doesn’t show up on the score sheet like Ristolainen does but what Darryl does is soo much more then just providing offense. He is much meaner, and tougher then him, this guy squated 530ibs during the summer ffs. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Nurse our defense’s middle linebacker since he’s the guy getting dirty in the trenches and doing stuff you can’t measure on the scoresheet. I can’t be the only convinced he eats metal for breakfast can I?

    • Rugbypig

      In the era where everyone and his dog has a cell phone and whips it out to take pictures at a raised voice what do you really think, with no pictures, twitter feeds etc, etc?
      In almost 3 weeks – ZERO information just silly questions or even better yet “I know a guy who has a friend, who’s brother was there” lols