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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Trade Darnell Nurse for Mitch Marner?

Before we begin, let’s be clear: This is not a rumour. It was a suggestion mentioned by Nick Kypreos in Toronto yesterday. He mentioned the Oilers need a scoring winger and Mitch Marner might be a fit. There is no doubt the Oilers could use some offence right now. He said it would take Darnell Nurse to make the deal.

Everyone will have an opinion on if they would do the trade or not. Trade debates are fantastic, but when I mentioned I wouldn’t do the trade, I was intrigued by some of the responses.

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This one really caught my eye.

“The gap in upside here is still canyon-like.”

He feels Marner has infinitely more potential in his play than Nurse does.

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It is interesting how often hockey fans and media (myself included) assume one good season early in a career means the player will automatically put up more points in the future. I’ve learned it doesn’t happen as often as you think.

Okay, let’s look at these two players.

In Nurse’s rookie season, he was on a bad Edmonton Oilers team. They finished 29th in the NHL.

They were bad because a rookie defenceman played the second most minutes on the blueline. For the final 50 games, Nurse had to play mainly in the top pairing with Andrej Sekera, and Sekera had to play the right side. Sekera isn’t as good on the right side. Unsurprisingly, Nurse struggled and his numbers weren’t great.

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However, It has always perplexed me how many people used those numbers for Nurse as a projection for his future. Because he struggled in a top-pairing role as a rookie, many felt he’d never be a top-pairing defender. Evaluating defencemen is extremely difficult, and to this point I don’t think Corsi or CF% is accurate enough to give us a good future projection. I’m not sure any stat is, to be honest, because there are many unexpected variables. Playing defence as a rookie is much harder than playing wing, or even centre, and considering the development curve of players is very different, it is hard to project where many rookie D-men will be in four or five seasons. I’ve failed many times trying to do so, but it won’t stop me from trying again.

The elite players are usually very good to great right away. Nurse is likely never going to be a top-15 D-man in the NHL, but I’d argue he has a lot of upside.

Nurse is an elite skating defenceman. He’s also big and mean. He is quite good at moving the puck and he can transport the puck up ice better than most D-men in the league, but prior to this season the play often died on his stick once he entered the offensive zone. But that isn’t happening now. He is making smarter plays. Why?

“I’ve learned to take a deep breath and relax,” said Nurse. “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.”

He has also spent the past two summers working with skills coach Adam Oates. Nurse spent time working on his puckhandling skills, but also on how to assess the ice when entering the offensive zone. It is paying off.

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I’d wager more on Nurse never being a true elite offensive D-man, because they are rare and so far he doesn’t play on the powerplay, but he has the potential to become a very productive blueliner at even strength.

Only two D-men had more than 40 even strength points last season — Brent Burns (50) and Erik Karlsson (42). Karlsson is almost in a class of his own in my eyes, and Burns has become an elite defender. Burns is somewhat of an outlier. A freakish talent who actually played forward for a bit, but really blossomed as an elite offensive defender when he was 26. His three best offensive seasons (60, 75 and 76 points) have come in the last three years when he was 29, 30 and 31. That’s rare, considering he only scored 40+ points three times in his previous nine seasons.

Twelve other defenders produced 30+ even strength points and we had 41 other produce 21+ points. A total of 55 defenders have more than 21 EV points. Morgan Reilly, Cam Fowler, Mark Giordano and Keith Yandle had 22 EV points. PK Subban, Andrej Sekera and Andrei Markov had 23. Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, Ryan Ellis and Drew Doughty had 24. If Nurse can produce 21-24 EV points he’d be quite valuable, considering he is now starting to play and succeed against the opposition’s top lines.

Nurse was injured last season and only played 44 games, but he produced 11 points, which prorates to 21. If he only maintains that for the next five years the Oilers would be happy, but as he makes better decisions with the puck, could he score 22-24 EV points? I don’t think that is a massive reach.

FORWARDS OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION

Nov 6, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner (16) skates with the puck against the Vegas Golden Knights at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Now let’s look at Marner. He is an incredibly gifted offensive player. Very smart. Shifty. Reads and reacts to the play very well. He had an excellent rookie season scoring 19-42-61 in 77 games. If he remains a consistent 60-point player he’d be very valuable.

But how much more can he produce? What is his upside? Is there that much more room for him to grow compared to Nurse as Veillette suggested? For argument sake, let’s say 70+ points would be a solid improvement and upside.

Since the start of the 2005/2006 season 122 players have scored 70+ points in a season. Digging deeper, 49 of them did it once, and 28 achieved it twice.

So that leaves 45 players who scored 70+ points at least three times between 2006-2017. It is pretty rare to be a consistent 70+ point-player.

Active players on the list include:

Three times:
Jamie Benn hit 79 when he was 24 and followed that up the next two seasons with 87 and 89 points.
Joe Pavelski first reached 70 points when he was 29 years old with a career-high 79 points.
John Tavares first did it at age 21 with 81 points and surpassed that once with 86 at age 24.
Loui Eriksson hit 71 points at 24 years old, had 73 the next year and 71 at age 26.
Marian Gaborik tallied 83 when he was 25 and had a career-best 86 when he was 27 years old.
Paul Stastny had 78 points when he was 21, and did it twice more before the age of 24. His most since was 60 points at age 28.
Phil Kessel had a career-high 82 points when he was 24 years old and surpassed 70 at age 26 and 29.
Vladimir Tarasenko had 73 points at age 23, then 74 at age 24 and last year he had 75 at age 25. Will he get 76 this year?

Four times:
Claude Giroux scored 70 for the first time when he was 23. Had career high 93 points when he was 24.
Corey Perry’s first time came at 23 years old with 72 points and his career best was 98 when he was 25.
Erik Karlsson hit 78 points at 21 years of age and had 71 last year when he was 26.
Steven Stamkos had 95 points at 19, 91 at 20 and 97 at 21. Injuries and the lockout are why he is only at four 70+ point seasons thus far.
Tyler Seguin had a career-best 84 points at age 22 and has produced 77, 73 and 72 points in the three seasons since.

Five times:
Henrik Zetterberg reached 85 when he was 25 years old surpassed 70 four more times up to the age of 30.
Jason Spezza scored 90 points when he was 22 and had 73+ points four more times by the age of 28.

Six times:
Anze Kopitar. He had 77 points when he was 20. Only topped that once with 81 when he was 22.
Nicklas Backstrom had 88 points at 21 years old, 101 points at 22 and had 86 last year when he was 29.
Patrick Kane has 72 points at 19 and hit a career-high 106 when he was 27.
Patrick Marleau had 86 and a career-best when he was 26. He reached 70+ five times between the age of 27-34.
Ryan Getzlaf scored 82 points at age 22, had a career-best 91 at 23 and has done it four more times, including last year with 73 at age 31.

Seven times:
Daniel Sedin did it first at age 25 with 71 points and peaked with 104 when he was 30.
Eric Staal set a career-high with 100 points when he was 21 and ranged between 70-82 in each of the next six seasons.

Eight times:
Evgeni Malkin had 85 as a rookie at 20 years young, and he has had three 100-point seasons.
Henrik Sedin scored 75 points when he was 25 and had 73 at age 34 with five 80+ seasons in between.

Nine times:
Alex Ovechkin had 106 points as a rookie at age 20, three more 100 point seasons and a total of seven 80+ point campaigns.
Sidney Crosby had 102 at age 18. He had four more 100+ point seasons and has had eight 84+ years. Injuries are the only reason he didn’t reach 70 in his other three years.

Twelve times:
Joe Thornton first did it at age 21 with 71 points. He topped 100 three times and had 82 points when he was 36 years young.

Fourteen times:
Jaromir Jagr first did it at age 20 with 94 points and the last when he was 35. But he left to KHL for three years then returned to the NHL. He had 66 points when he was 43. The elite of the elite.

MARNER COMPARABLES

Comparables are difficult, because no two situations are the same and we’ve seen some players hit their offensive peak early while others like Pavelski don’t hit it until they are 29.

But Veillette suggested Marner has a lot of upside due to his rookie season. It is fair to think that based on 61 points, but how much room to grow does he truly have? Seventy points would be great. If he ever hit 80 that would be outstanding, so I looked at players who reached 60 points before the age of 21 since 2006.

These guys were 80+ points between 18-21: Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Kane, Tavares, Backstrom and Connor McDavid last year. I don’t have Marner projecting to be like any of these players.
Eric Staal had 100 when he was 21, but only came within 24 points of that once again in his career. I have him more as a solid 70+ point player.

But the next phase of players has some interesting names to use as a comparable. I looked first at wingers.

Jeff Skinner had 31 goals and 63 points as an 18-year-old rookie. He had 33 goals and 54 points when he was 21 and tallied 37-26-63 last year when he was 24. He has yet to surpass his rookie season, but he is a solid scorer.

Jordan Eberle had 34 goals and 76 points in his second season when he was 21. He had 65 and 63 points when he was 23 and 24 years of age and he’s averaged 26 goals/season in his career. He’s been a fairly consistent scorer in his career, but his early 76 points was more of an outlier. He’s closer to a 60-point scorer, which is very good in today’s NHL.

Johnny Gaudreau had 24-40-64 as a 21-year-old rookie. He had 78 points the next year and 61 last season and is off to a very good start this year with 19 points in 15 games. He’s a good bet to match or surpass his second season.

Another name of interest is Matt Duchene. A highly skilled smaller player who is very smart.

He had 67 points at 19 years old, his second season in the NHL, then slumped to 28 the next year, but  he produced 70 points when he was 22 (he did have 43 points in 47 games during the lockout when he was 21, which prorates to 75 points). But we’ve never seen him take a big leap offensively since his 19 year-old season. He has lived up to his second season, and surpassed it by a few points, but not a dramatic jump, which illustrates how difficult it is to go to the next level.

There are some other recent young players who burst on the scene right away, but have yet to take a big step after their first few seasons.

Nathan MacKinnon tallied 24-39-63 as an 18-year-old rookie. He has had seasons of 38, 52 and 53 points since. He is off to a good start with 14 points in 14 games this year.
Filip Forsberg played in the AHL at 19 and then scored 26-37-63 as a 20-year-old rookie in the NHL. He scored 33 and 31 goals the previous two years and 64 and 58 points. But he’s yet to take a jump offensively after an excellent rookie campaign.

I like all six of these players. They are very talented and have had solid careers with differing amounts of success, but Skinner, Duchene, Eberle, MacKinnon and Forsberg have yet to have a big jump from their early success. Gaudreau’s 78 points is the most of them and this season, albeit it early, he looks like he could match it or surpass it. I’d argue he is the best offensive player of them all.

Marner had a great rookie season, and while he is off to a tough start (eight points in 16 games), I suspect his offence will return. But I’m not sold he is a lock to emerge as a consistent 70-point player. It is extremely difficult to produce 70 points year after year.

If he remains a consistent 60-point player, that would be outstanding. I think he is capable of doing that, but when Veillette suggests the gap in upside is canyon-like, I believe he is making an emotional judgement based on one season. As a fan of offence, I’d love to see Marner score 70 or 80 points. I’m all for more goals in the game, but wanting it and doing it are two completely different things.

WOULD YOU MAKE THAT TRADE?

If I’m the Oilers I wouldn’t, but if I’m the Leafs I would. They have the luxury of having William Nylander as another high-scoring right-winger. They also have Auston Mathews, Nazim Kadri and other gifted scorers. The Leafs need to improve their defence and while trading a scoring winger can be dangerous, I believe they have enough depth to do it.

The Oilers need a scoring winger. No arguing that, but Nurse is only 22. I see him getting better and he improving. He also is the toughest D-man they have. I think the intangible of toughness is a nice bonus when you combine it on top of his skating and other skills. Many different styles of players are needed on a winning team and his edge on top of his skill is a nice bonus. Plus, if they trade Nurse, they are one injury away from not having much depth.

Also with the Oilers salary structure, I see Nurse signing either a bridge deal or a long-term deal in the $4 million/season range. If Marner has another 55-65 point season then he is getting a big raise within 20 months.

I’m sure Leafs fans and Oilers fans will disagree among their own fanbase if this is a good deal or not. Some would do it and some won’t. We all see players differently which makes debates interesting, but I strongly disagree with the notion that, starting today, Marner has much more upside than Nurse.

I think both are good players, but offer vastly different skills. As much as I love offence, you need good D-men to be competitive and I think Nurse has improved his game a lot from his rookie season.

Would you make the trade? Why or why not?

***Again, this is not a trade rumour. Just looking at what a potential deal might look like.***