Oilersnation let out a collective sigh of relief after it was announced on Monday that the team had agreed to terms with Darnell Nurse on a two-year, $3.2 million contract. The brief holdout is now over and Nurse is back in Edmonton poised to prove that he is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman.
While Nurse might have aspirations of becoming a top-pairing option this year, is it fair to expect him to perform like one? If he plays at the same level he did last season, should fans be happy? Or does he need to bring more to the table?
In 2017-18, Nurse played 1574 even strength minutes, the most amongst Oilers defenseman. He also logged 180 shorthanded minutes (1st) and 37 minutes on the powerplay (3rd). In total, Nurse averaged just over 22 minutes a night, while being the only Oilers defenseman to play in all 82 games. Todd McLellan used him a lot.
Not only did he play a lot, but they were generally tough minutes. He started 31% of his shifts in the offensive zone, second only to Adam Larsson, and based on the numbers I looked at he faced the second toughest level of competition, again, only Adam Larsson had it worse.
Despite the tough matchups, when Nurse was on the ice good things usually happened. He had an even-strength on-ice Corsi For Percentage of 50.86% and a Goals For Percentage of 53.19%.
Now, he spent over 800 of his even strength minutes paired with Adam Larsson, so that definitely had a positive impact on his numbers. I also believe that playing with a proven shutdown defenseman like Larsson allowed Nurse to play a more relaxed game and even feel safer jumping up in the rush like he often did.
The other 700 even strength minutes were mostly spent with Kris Russell (432 minutes), Matt Benning (98 minutes), Eric Gryba (82 minutes), and Brandon Davidson (72 minutes). When he was away from Larsson, I still liked Nurses game, but he wasn’t as effective in my eyes.
There were times where he definitely looked like a defenseman with less than 200 career games, but I came away from last season very confident in his ability to anchor his own pairing.
Away from the numbers, it was easy to love Nurse’s physical play. Whether it was a hard body check to separate his opponent from the puck, using his strength to clear the front of the net, or his willingness to drop the gloves, Nurse can strike fear into the opposition. For a team like the Oilers that has a lot of skill, Nurse’s edge is very valuable.
Last year was viewed as a step forward for the young blueliner, and if he delivers the same type of performance in 2018-19, he will be more than worth his new $3.2 million cap hit.
But this season isn’t about living up to a cap-hit, it’s about continuing to take steps towards becoming a bonafide top-pairing defenseman. So what would a realistic step forward be? I’m looking for three things from Nurse in 2018-19.
The one knock on Nurse has been his ability to play with the puck. I’m not just talking about point production either. He’s always been a strong skater but he often struggles to make good decisions with the puck on his stick.
He got a little bit better at that this past season, but it still isn’t at a “top-pairing” level. This is one of those things that’s tough to explain with numbers, but this season, I want to see Nurse raise his ability to efficiently move the puck up ice and when he’s in the offensive zone, I want to see him help generate more scoring chances.
As I said, I saw him take some positive strides forward in this area over the last year, but there’s another level I think he can reach.
POWER PLAY OPTION
Last season, Nurse played the third most powerplay minutes amongst Oilers defenseman, but that was still only 37 total minutes. In that time, he only got 11 shots on goal and didn’t get a single point.
If he wants his next contract to be in the $5-6 million range, then he needs to establish himself as a legitimate powerplay option.
There’s going to be a good chance for him to do that as well. Apart from Oscar Klefbom, the team doesn’t have a proven option. Combine that with the fact that Klefbom is coming off a poor season and the door is wide open for Nurse to grab a spot on one of the teams two powerplay units.
I touched on it above, but there’s no doubt he has the raw skill to do this, he just needs to slow the game down a little bit. It’s not a guarantee, and he can still turn into very good NHL defenseman without this contributing with the man advantage but it would be a huge benefit to the Oilers if Nurse steps in and becomes a legitimate powerplay quarterback.
CARRY A PAIRING
Nurse has done this at points over the past two seasons, but he hasn’t found a way to consistently thrive as “the guy” on a top-four pairing. I’m looking for that to change this season.
Like I pointed out earlier, Nurse spent 800 minutes with a shutdown partner in Adam Larsson. He probably won’t have that luxury this season, since I believe Todd McLellan will put Larsson back with fellow Swede Oscar Klefbom.
That means Nurse will have to play with one of Matt Benning or Kris Russell. He’ll be counted on to anchor the Oilers second pairing and I wonder how that responsibility will affect his willingness to take some risks offensively. I’ll be looking for him to stabilize the teams second pairing, while still jumping up in the rush and creating offence from time to time.
Nurse will have more responsibilities on the Oiler’s blueline this season and I expect there will be some added pressure on him to perform better offensively.
There will be plenty of opportunity for Nurse and while he has already established himself as an everyday NHLer, there are clearly still areas of his game where he needs to improve if he wants to become a bonafide #1 defenseman.
He believes he can be a legitimate top-pairing option, and the potential is there. The Oilers are hoping he can reach that potential soon, and I’m excited to see him take some major strides forward this season.