Photo Credit: © Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

What should we expect from Darnell Nurse?

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?

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Mar 13, 2018; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic (24) fights with Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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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.

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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.


Mar 17, 2018; Sunrise, FL, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers with defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) in the third period at BB&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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Jan 12, 2018; Glendale, AZ, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal in the first period against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

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.


Apr 8, 2017; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) battles for the puck against Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin (33) during the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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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.

    • Big Nuggets

      He has worked with Oates every offseason for a few years now. Nurse always seems to start the season looking confident and like he has worked hard in the offseason. I expect this season to be no different in that respect. I’m curious what effect these new coaches will have on Nurse.

  • ziyan94

    I don’t expect Nurse to replace Klefbom on PP1 but his confidence carrying the puck suggests that he’ll have no trouble improving his EV point total this year. 35-40 points would be awesome and would show that he’s continuing on an upward trajectory offensively, even with a different D partner

  • I thought the biggest difference last year was his confidence. A HUGE improvement, as he looked so much more at ease leaving the zone with the puck, as opposed to “glass and out” which seemed to happen all too often previously. I think maybe the sheer number of games/minutes played helped calm him down, and maybe now the bridge contract will motivate him further. Will he ever win a Norris trophy? Maybe not (although, heck…he’s 23. If he works hard and keeps improving year after year, it’s not impossible). Will he be a solid top-two defender for years to come? Absolutely.

  • Jaxon

    Nurse 5v5 Ranks among NHL D in 2017-2018:
    1549 Minutes TOI #6
    24 Pts #20
    5 Goals #45
    19 Assists #14
    9 Rush attempts #3
    20 Rebounds created #7
    142 Hits #24
    113 Blocked shots #26
    25 Takeaways #38

  • Oilman99

    If he wants the $5-6 mil. long term contract, he now has two years to prove he is a better dman than Larrson and Klef. Not sure that happens, he may trade bait by that time.

    • Dapper Dan 3099

      The issue is that in 2 years, the cap will likely continue to go up, so you cant use Larsson/Klef deals as comparables, since they were signed years ago with a lower cap. This is the same argument that was made when McDavid signed and some people lost their minds that he made more than Crosby. If Nurse progresses nicely, I don’t think it would be out of the question to see him in the 6-7 mil range.

    • Redbird62

      Not quite. When Larsson and Klefbom signed, their contracts were 5.84% and 5.71% of the cap each. With cap inflation in another 2 years, an equivalent contract would be close to $5 million per year. As well, because Nurse did a 2 year bridge, the next contract of his, if it is long term (6-7 yrs), will buy more of his UFA status and teams have to pay more for that as well. So if Nurse’s play is on par with those 2 at the end of this contract (and hopefully all 3 have continued to improve) he will likely get paid quite a bit more by whoever is paying him than what their last contracts were. And for Larsson, his big payday could come one year later. If Klefbom returns to and possibly improves on his 2016-17 form (he is still only 25) his contract will be a massive bargain for the Oilers for the next 5 years.

    • I had a similar thought. What if, in two years’ time, Bear and Bouchard have spent a couple of years in the minors, and are ready to step into a full-time NHL role? How will our cap space look by then? Will we have moved Looch by then? If so, does Darryl become the new #1 D-man, anchoring a young (he’ll be 25) corps? Or trade him for another blue-chip defender? The more I think about his bridge deal, the more I like it. It puts pressure on him to perform, for a number of reasons.

      • That's My Point

        What if BOUCHARD steps in now?
        BOUCH instantly helps the Oilers powerplay and fills in for most of the year until Sekera comes back.
        By then the trading deadline will be close so there will probably be a trade involving the D.
        Then the Oilers can bring in Bear.
        Next year the Oilers can bring up Jones and rotate another older dman out.

        • OilerForLife

          It’s totally up to what happens on the ice. If Bouchard steps up big time and can’t be denied, then he’s on the team. If coaching determines there is some weakness that he need to work on, then the have to decide where to send him, and why. The NHL is the best hockey league, and its very tough to advance to.
          If that were to happen, we would see him eventually. Nothing to worry about, patience would be the key. We need to build a winning franchise, and getting there and staying there is the goal. There are some very good signs we are on the way, and it won’t be that much longer.

      • OilerForLife

        Klefbom will bounce back, don’t worry. Removing bone chips in his shoulder is a simple and minimally invasive surgery. A full recovery and he’ll be back to his 2016-17 form. We need all pistons running to right the defense after losing Sekera, and Klefbom is a big piece of that.

    • toprightcorner

      I would not be surprised to see Nurse traded after this contract is up. Not because I don’t like him, I love him, but he will be too expensive as a 2nd pairing dman. I don’t see him passing Klefbom and Caleb Jones should be close to playing 2nd pairing. Nurse will still be under control and would be able to fetch a very good return. With Bouchard, Bear and Jones on the horizon, the future of the defence is no longer a huge question mark. Nurse’s price will be too high and can be used to fill whatever the biggest hole is at that time.

  • Redbird62

    Small sample size with only 95 minutes last season, but Nurse and Benning played very well together, with a 58% corsi, a 59% Fenwick and a goals for of 83%. Don’t know who the forwards are nor the strength of competition, but those are very good numbers. They played very well together as a 3rd pair two seasons ago, and may be ready to be a good second pair now. I like Nurse’s puck carrying, but the 3 areas I would like to see him work on are his occasional over commitment in his own end (still ran around at times last season but better now than before), better first pass out of the zone when he doesn’t carry it, and continued improvement in his decision making in the offensive zone. I like how he jumps in from time to time, but sometimes he shoots when he should pass, or makes the wrong pass. I am optimistic that he can improve on all of these.


    What do i expect from Nurse? Well how about punching Tkachuk in his annoying face so hard it knock his mouth piece through the back of his head. That would be a great start.

  • Towers-of-dub

    so how did the Nurse/Draisaitl incident from last year play into negotiations? Does management not know about it? Any of the writers on ON know anything about it? Just trying to clear it up.

  • Bills Bills

    Just play well and keep progressing. They have done a decent job of developing Nurse. Haven’t said that about enough Oilers draft picks. Hope they do the same with Bouchard.

  • toprightcorner

    The PP is not in Nurses future, a year or 2 down the road. Bouchard will control that position and Bear/Klefbom will be n the 2nd PP unit.

    Nurse will not likely see any more PP time than he did last year unless their are injuries so I do not expect an increase in offense.

    3 things I would like to see from Nurse this year

    1) Make quicker decisions with the puck and not skate with it so much, especially to enter the zone, it slows up the forwards.

    2) USe his toughness a little more. He has the ability to be a dman that forwards are scared of. Drop the golves a few more times, be harder on guys in front of the net. Give me a couple Polak moments to make opponents think your a little crazy.

    3) Stay the same on the defensive stat numbers. He won’t have the luxury playing with Larsson and will likely be paired with Benning most of the season. If he can maintain the same level defensively as last year, I will be bere satisfied.