Darnell Nurse and the Oilers agreed to a two-year contract extension early Monday afternoon, and he was on the ice Tuesday morning with his teammates. Nurse’s brief absence from training camp shouldn’t impact his play at all. Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tobias Reider and Milan Lucic have yet to play in a preseason game and I’d expect all seven of them, and Nurse, to be in the lineup tomorrow at home v. the Winnipeg Jets.
Nurse was skating with his teammates for a week and a half prior to the start of training camp, so conditioning and timing won’t be a concern. His role will be similar to last season: play a lot at EV and on the PK. Nurse would like to get more PP time, and I’m curious if we see him get some in preseason. He spent a lot of his summer working on improving his play in the offensive zone. I spoke to Nurse after he signed his extension and we discussed the deal, his offensive game, the arrival of Trent Yawney and more.
Jason Gregor: Congrats on the contract extension. I think it went a little bit longer than we expected because the number both sides ended up agreeing on was a number that was well within the range of what most people thought, at least what I did over the summer, of what was the projected number. Are you surprised that it took this long?
Darnell Nurse: (Laughs) well yes and no. I think that’s just how it goes. It’s funny with learning about the negotiations and the signing, it’s just a bit of a long process. Sometimes it just takes a lot longer than expected.
Gregor: You’re a pretty calm guy, off the ice at times, can definitely snap at times on the ice. How was the negotiations, were you finding yourself going through a roller coaster of emotions every day or were you fairly calm?
Nurse: Nah, I was pretty calm actually the whole time. The only thing was I wanted to be on the ice with my teammates. Obviously that was first and foremost what I thought about. I just wanted to be out there with the guys. You never want to miss anything, but thinking of the business side, I’ve obviously never had that before, it was for me an educating process. I was very involved in it and everything. Everything that went on, I knew. There is a business aspect to this game and that’s all that was.
Gregor: Were you exchanging text messages with any of the defensive guys to kind of get a lay of the land on what Yawney is going to implement or maybe what might be different from last year?
Nurse: I met with him before in Edmonton when I was there and had a conversation with him on the phone. We haven’t talked a lot about it just because I really haven’t been gone that long. So we get to get there tomorrow and I can ask some questions and get a feel. He’s a guy who’s so respected around the league, I think that if you asked anyone who has ever played for him they all love him as a coach and obviously he’s a really good person. It’s exciting, I think, for everyone in the D core and everyone in the team, about the staff we have here this year. It’s exciting for sure.
Gregor: You’ve had Jim Johnson for the first three years of your career, but now Yawney is here. How is Yawney going to help your game?
Nurse: Obviously you saw how active and involved the D were in Anaheim and those guys were able to make plays on both sides of the ice. I think that is an exciting part for our group to be more involved in the offensive side of the game. At the same time be responsible defensively. From playing against him and his teams you notice how active his D are and their availability to make plays on the other side of the ice too.
MAKE MORE PLAYS IN OFFENSIVE ZONE
Gregor: You’ve talked openly about wanting to improve in the offensive zone. Maybe just reading the play more than anything else. Your ability to transport the puck, move it up the ice and a lot of times carry it in on your own is one of your strengths. You worked with skills coach Adam Oates again this season, so how were you working on improving your offensive decision making and instincts in the offensive zone with him?
Nurse: It was a bunch of things that go into that. You watch film, you see guys make plays, what they saw, you kind of go through the whole thought process of it. At the same time, if we’re simply working on skills, everyone can always get better. So just being able to work on my skills, stick handling, muscle memory, that kind of thing; hammer it all together. You do all of this work over the summer and I’m excited to bring it to the games and taking that step (offensively).
Gregor: You mentioned working on stick handling. Are you just going through pylons doing drills, or is it stick handling coming in at different angles on the ice? What exactly do you to do improve stick handling?
Nurse: If you’ve ever seen an Oates skate, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a pylon on the ice. I don’t even know how to describe his ability to see things and translate them into drills, it’s just, he’s just awesome, simple drills, simple techniques that make such a big difference in your everyday game. A lot of repetition, and small reminders on basic techniques, which really helped me.
Gregor: I spoke to Scottie Upshall today and he said he had been skating with you and Connor McDavid the last few years at the Bio Steel camp. He’s confident he can come in and earn a spot on the team. From what you know from those skates with Upshall the last few summers, what do you think he can add to your team, maybe more so as his personality in the room, and how important is that?
Nurse: On the ice he’s a guy who just does the right things all of the time. You can count on him whether you need a big block, if you need a big play in the offensive zone, he’s able to basically do everything. He’s a guy that you can really rely on. He is one of, if not, the most liked and respected guys in the league. I’ve never heard one guy who didn’t like Scottie Upshall. It just speaks volumes of who he is and who he is as a person. I mean, you probably get a little taste of it being able to talk to him after practice and what not. He’s an outstanding guy.
Gregor: You have a reputation of getting along with all the players. You can be outspoken when needed and you can joke around. Now that this is your fourth season, how do you feel you’ve evolved in that role and are you looking to become more of a leader?
Nurse: You go through stages when you first get into the league. I’m kind of still going through it. You have to earn the respect of the room, or the respect of the guys and once you have the respect you’re able to lead a little more; guys start to look at you more. But I think that first and foremost for myself I always try to go out there and be one of the hardest working players on the ice, leading by example is important to do first. And when you go out there and do the right things each and every night, that’s when your voice really matters. Yeah, it’s important, you need a few guys, especially playing a team game like this; you can’t just have one guy who is the leader. It’s really leadership by committee. Those are the best rooms you ever see, it’s where you can count on anyone at any given time to step up and be a leader.
Gregor: You were on the ice the most last year, played over 22 minutes a game. Todd McLellan said he expects it to be similar numbers for you. I know that you would like to get a little bit more power play time, but I want to talk specifically about the penalty kill. You were there when the penalty kill was really struggling, especially at home but then from February on your team was second best in the NHL at 85%. What changed? What did you do better and what did the group do better down the stretch?
Nurse: I think it just came down to our details on the penalty kill. I think every penalty kill system should be able to kill any penalty, no matter what system you are running. There’s ways to cut off everything, but if you’re not invested into your details, if you’re not outworking the power play, it doesn’t matter what kind of system you have, it’s not going to work. For us I think we just didn’t have enough of a commitment on the penalty kill, especially through the middle stretch at home. For us it’s going to be important that we have a strong willingness to kill penalties and it starts right from the first day all of the way to our last game.
Gregor: You’re still really young when you consider NHL games played and the experience you’ve had, but how do you feel you have improved at knowing what to expect on opposing power plays, how to defend it? And if so, was it more your eyes and watching the play or more so how to position your stick that helped you down the stretch?
Nurse: I think a lot of penalty killing, it’s like a chess match, especially for guys on the left. A lot of power plays are run of off of the left side (as the defender, right side for forwards). And many of the best passers are those half wall guys. There are guys if you wave your stick those smart guys just sitting on the wall are going to pick you apart. It’s kind of just being able to say, ‘what are his options he uses the most and what are you leaving out right now?’ Obviously an active stick is important and it’s being active at the right times and cutting off the right lane. So the big thing is just being able to have more awareness of where the guy on the half wall wants to put the puck, where is the guy down low and where his options are. So, it’s a lot of reading and reacting on the penalty kill and with that said, it was a lot of hard work too, so it’s not as easy. It’s something we’re going to have to be better at this year, myself included.
Watching Nurse’s progression over the term of his contract is going to be interesting. Can he become more of an offensive threat? He believes he can and that’s why a bridge deal worked for him. He produced 26 EV points last season, 34th most among D-men in the NHL, and he wants to improve on that this season. If he wants to surpass 40 points he will need some PP time, and with Klefbom already here that might be difficult, at least on the first unit.
If Nurse can produce 30 points at EV and continue to play tough minutes against the top forwards in the NHL, he will become an even more valuable player for the Oilers. His decision making with the puck in the offensive zone and reading the play in the defensive zone are the two areas that will decide what his next contract looks like as well as how competitive the Oilers can become.