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Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Darnell Nurse and the Defence

Edmonton had a massive hole to fill when Andrej Sekera tore his ACL during the playoffs last season. Sekera played the second most minutes among Oilers defencemen behind Oscar Klefbom in all situations. Peter Chiarelli chose to re-sign Kris Russell and bet that Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning could take on more minutes, instead of bringing in another big-minute defender to fill that void.

Sekera is slated to return around December, so the idea was the Oilers would hold the fort until then. Russell would anchor a second pairing playing on his natural left side, while either Nurse or Benning assumed more minutes. It was an interesting plan for a team many had as contenders going into the season, and it almost worked as intended.

Nurse and Benning are playing more, especially Nurse, but Russell has seen his minutes heavily slashed from last year and the Oilers are 5-8-1.

Todd McLellan has leaned on his two young defencemen to replace Sekera’s minutes while moving Russell to the third pairing. Russell still ranks fourth in average ice time, but Benning has averaged more at even strength in his 11 games. Russell’s seen almost three and half minutes less per game this year, and that four-year contract is already looking ill-advised with both Nurse and Benning needing new deals this summer.

Nurse has seen a big increase in his minutes and good for reason. He’s played over 21 minutes the last three games alongside Adam Larsson, and the speedy defenceman is controlling play at an alarmingly good rate. His 7.7% corsi relative, shot attempts relative to the rest of the team when he’s not on the ice, is seventh in the league amongst defencemen with 200 5-on-5 minutes played, according to Corsica. That percentage is in range of players like Mark Giordano, Chris Tanev, Seth Jones, and not far behind Oliver-Ekman Larsson and Zach Werenski. Nurse has emerged as a legitimate top-four defenceman through 14 games, with his minutes only increasing.

Benning’s minutes have also increased as of late, though he played the least of the defense against the Islanders Tuesday. He’s still been in the the top four the past five games. Benning’s play hasn’t been at Nurse’s level, but he’s been better since the Russell-Benning pairing was broken up. A Klefbom-Benning pairing could be a real strength for Edmonton if Nurse is capable of taking on more minutes with Larsson.

Both Klefbom and Larsson are playing more this season. Klefbom’s 24 minutes a game are a career high, while Larsson’s 22 minutes are just behind his last season in New Jersey. The two have had some uneven moments so far, but it’s hard to fault them when they’re taking on as much minutes as they have. McLellan’s still had both Swedes firmly in his top four throughout the season.

Post-Sekera

Mar 23, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Andrej Sekera (2) attempts a shot on goal in the first period against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Andrej Sekera is going to return. McLellan has wisely eased off Russell’s minutes in absence of Sekera, and Nurse and Benning have taken advantage, but it presents a dilemma for the veteran’s return. Eric Gryba is the obvious candidate to come out of the lineup. He’s consistently been the sixth defenceman.

All of Klefbom, Sekera, and Nurse play the left side, so maybe Sekera gets up to speed on the third pair with Russell if Nurse is still chugging along. Russell and Sekera as a veteran third pairing could provide Edmonton with three stable pairings, as Russell’s been McLellan’s fifth defenceman recently.

Replacing Sekera was always going to be difficult, but Edmonton could soon have three left-handed defencemen worthy of playing 20-minutes a game with Nurse’s emergence.

Who’s minutes should be slashed? Sekera could be eased back into the lineup with lower minutes than we’ve seen in the past, or possibly Klefbom could see a decrease as he hasn’t performed at the same level, especially defensively, thus far in 2017.

  • OriginalPouzar

    One of the main issues with the 4 year, $16M contract with a NMC (modified after two years) from Kris Russell is that, although he played 2nd pairing last year, it was reasonable to assume that he would be passed on the depth chart by both Nurse and Benning within a year or two.

    Both of those players have passed Russell – Nurse has passed him due to a giant step forward and Benning has passed him notwithstanding an uneven season (playing better now) due to a regression from Russell.

    The regression from Russell was also easily predictable as it was clearly oubvious that his fairly solid play as 2RD last year was largely due from having an elite second pairing rock anchoring the pair in Sekera.

    Russell has had his minutes slashed because he’s been passed on the depth chart and because he hasn’t played all that well. He’s even struggled to anchor the 3rd pair with Gryba.

    With that said, he did have a solid game last night and was material in the OT goal and I do like the following when healthy:

    Nurse/Larsson
    Klefbom/Benning
    Sekera/Russell (Gryba)

    • Bills Bills

      To be fair, anyone playing with Gryba is going to have their play suffer. Aside from hitting Gryba is a 7 defenceman for a reason. He simply shoukd not be playing every night. The amount of Nurses contract could seriously cripple the team. Just happy the Swedes are on value contracts for now.

      • btrain

        I don’t get why some folks have this issue with Gryba. He is a classic stay at home defender who is not only competent in a 3rd pairing role but provides a consistent performance most times he is in the line up (even when he’s been out for weeks). Its not like he is getting caved in when he is out there, he is not a detriment to his partner, though he may not be a huge boost to them either, but its the 3rd pair. The relative corsi for percentage indicated for Nurse in the article, Gryba is second amongst the top 6 Oiler defenders with a 2.73 (Russel is a -7.79!). Anyway, I just think he is a dependable NHL caliber defensemen and at 900,000 this guy is a bargain occupying the role he does with his mix of experience and ability. Unlike his current partner who is making all of 3.1 million more than he is.

      • OriginalPouzar

        Nurse’s next contract shouldn’t be crippling. Yes, he’s taking a very nice step forward in his development, however, as far as offensive numbers go, they will remain middling and keep his contract hit down.

        Caveat: That god damn Michael Mattheson contract is likely to be used as a comparable.

    • lee

      Sadly the numbers to keep those two will kill the team, Tampa is a powerhouse and look what it’s costing the team for their dynamic two forwards.
      If the season plays out how its going so far McDavid will end up somewhere in the 8-15 in scoring , do you think he gets the same contract?
      I guess its all timing, 90% of the players in the league have their best years in their contract year. McDavid didn’t need to Leon did, the league is littered with players making way more than they are worth because they had a great season in their contract year.
      Between GM’s frozen by fear of losing the player and Agents/lawyers feeding on the fear you end up with a team like Chicago that might be good enough to sneak into the playoffs but will end up doing their best impression of Detroit in the last 10 years.
      The cap allows you to have a really good 3-4 years so you better make hay, after that you have a team full of contracts you can’f afford.
      This is the last year the Oilers have/has before that happens and somehow they are the lowest scoring team in the entire league.

      • Christian Pagnani

        The McDavid and Draisaitl contracts won’t be the ones that kill the team. Those will be the ones given to non-core players like Lucic and Russell.

        You can afford to overpay your star players, but big contracts to depth guys is where things fall apart.

        • Oilerchild77

          I’m willing to bet that PC will find a GM to take at least one of those contracts off his hands when the time comes. There’s always someone looking to get to the floor every season.

          • Christian Pagnani

            I’m less certain of that. Both are big contracts with no-move/no-trade clauses. Florida had to retain money on Jason Demers’ contract and take back salary to move him.

      • OilersGM

        Well the Tampa duo are signed by a smart GM who was one of the best who ever played hockey the oilers duo were signed by a guy who never played a nhl game and looks like a monkey and overpays every free agent he ever signed.

  • lee

    I expect either Jones or Bear to make the team next year, Bear would be the ideal situation as the Oilers have little punch from the back when it comes to D men. This would mean someone will have to go.
    There are 2 no move contracts and Larsson isn’t going anywhere which brings you to Kleftbom, Benning or Nurse. Lets say that Nurse and Benning are looking for at least 4 million, that would mean you could have two 4 million $ d men on the 4th line, can’t be done. The cap will not allow the team to sign everyone next year, Maroon will also be looking for a contract.
    That is why every contract over 3 million and certainly any no move contracts have to pay off for the team, there is zero room for mistakes. Next year the team is finally getting rid of one bad contract only to replace it with another.

  • That Russell contract looks worse by the day. Huge props to Darnell for the improvements. The problem is the way the salary structure is set up right now. I bet the Oilers lose one of Nurse/Benning this summer because of the contracts needed throughout the lineup.

    • IRONman

      Nurse looks better each game, love he can rush out of the zone. Breakout passes getting picked off with the boring Trap tactics. Sekera and Russel are an awesome pair. Can’t wait for Sekera to come back. Good guy

  • Ed De Hod

    Not really understanding this love and high praise for Nurse nowadays.
    Nurse is an average defender at best. Nothing about his play or decision making process screams Top Tier Defender.
    The same folk that call Sekera the Shinguard Assassin need to refer to Nurse as the Skate Killer.
    Darnell the Skate Killer is one of the main reasons for poor PK. His position and decision making is weaker than Eberle along the boards.
    Can anyone point out or show proof when one of Skate Killer’s pinches on offense resulted in a scoring chance, please? I’ll wait.

  • btrain

    Of all the young Oiler defensemen, I believe Nurse has the largest toolbox. His combination of size, grit, mean, speed, agility, can’t be touched by most defenders in the league. You just don’t see 6’4″ defenders who can skate like he can. I hope that he is never painted/molded into a 2nd pairing defensive defender role when his ceiling could be much higher. He needs to be given some PP time, some opportunity and encouragement from the coaching staff to put up points. You can see him starting to explore the space a little more this season, which is great to see, but he still has little clue what to do once in the offensive zone. Last night for instance he had that great rush up the ice, stopped just inside the blue and basically froze trying to figure out what to do next. This ended up in a turnover and Jersey’s 2nd goal. Let Darrel play forward a few games when Sekera comes back, get him working around in the offensive zone during practice, just get him more comfortable in that area of the ice! There is some major untapped potential for this guy. Brent Burns like may be a stretch, but with Nurse its a brain/opportunity thing not an ability/skill thing that would keep him from reaching this kind of potential.

  • The Whispererer

    Oilerchild77

    I’m interested in hearing which other teams were looking to sign Russell. He went the entire 2016 summer as a UFA without a contract until October when Chiarelli signed him for $500,000 more than he had ever made in a single year. In June 2017 (prior to the free agent interview window) Chia gave him an
    additional $900,000 along with 4 years and a NMC. If any teams were trying to sign Russell in 2017, they would have been tampering. It is also worth noting that Russell had stated many times that he really wanted to play in Alberta. As far as i know there is only 1 other NHL team in Alberta and they had all sorts of time to sign him in 2016 if they believed in him.
    This was clearly a case where Chiarelli held all the cards in the deck, yet yielded on every negotiation point…$, term, and NMC.

    • Oilerchild77

      I guess I was just assuming there was likely some interest being that he had a decent season and had just helped the team get within a game of the conference final.

      I think PC knew there was intetest, that’s why he did the deal. By the way, do you honestly believe tampering doesn’t happen!? What world of Angel-like fairness do you live in?

  • BringitbacklikeSlats

    Oh what do you know… more Oilersnation staff writers taking any opportunity possible to malign Kris Russell due to nothing more than the bs Corsi Rel stat.
    Sure $4 mill is too much but in fairness what was PC supposed to due with Sekera injured? Just let Russell walk and go into the season as is. Russell was no worse than our second best D in the playoffs, and currently leads all blue in pts and started the game winning goal last night.
    One thing you might consider before running him out of town is that Gryba needs a steady partner back there to be safe and KR is exactly that. He skates very well, and makes a first exit pass pretty cleanly as well as recognizing danger.
    You defensive prognosticators that jump on the bandwagon of bashing this guy for nothing more than signing a good deal is ridiculous. Open your eyes and watch for a change