In the ultra-competitive environment of the National Hockey League, an injury presents a challenge for the injured player, but it also creates a wonderful opportunity for the player granted the chance to fill the void.
Oscar Klefbom injured his finger on December 11th and has missed 13 games. He will likely miss another six prior to the All-star break. His absence has been noticeable, and his presence will be a welcome return, but his injury has opened the door for Darnell Nurse to have more responsibilities and some time on the first unit powerplay.
Nurse has eleven points in 13 games since Klefbom was injured. In fact he has 14 points since Klefbom left in the second period of the Colorado game.
Last season we saw Nurse begin to chip in offensively at EV. He finished with 26th EV points, tied with Colton Parayko for 34th among NHL defenders, but in the absence of Klefbom, Nurse has exploded offensively.
He is ninth among D-men in scoring since December 12th with eleven points. He and Adam Larsson had a few rough games defensively against Tampa Bay and Vancouver, and you wonder if part of that was Nurse being overextended, averaging 29 minutes/game in a seven-game stretch, but outside of those two games Nurse has been very good for Edmonton, and the biggest improvement in his play has been his offence.
“I’m just trying to make plays when they are there and not trying to force it, without going to far outside my comfort zone,” said Nurse. “I feel like my game is growing. It is a lot of work and I need to continue to work to keep improving.
Nurse wasn’t drafted as a pure offensive-minded defender. His skating ability, aggressiveness, competitiveness and defensive play were the main attributes that led him to being the #7 overall pick in 2013. He had some offensive abilities, no question, but he wasn’t described as an offensive defender.
He did produce 83 points in 100 games over his final two seasons in junior, so he has some offensive acumen. But it wasn’t the focal point of his game.
During his first three seasons with the Oilers, he played a total of 60 minutes on the powerplay and had one point.
This season he has already played 57 minutes, 38 of those minutes occurring during Klefbom’s absence. Nurse has four PP points over the past 13 games. He’s far from a dominant PP quarterback, but he’s never had much PP time in the NHL, and working an NHL powerplay is an acquired skill. It is much more difficult than we think. Keep in mind Klefbom had six PP points in 31 games this season and only had six in 68 games last year. Nurse’s PP production, albeit in limited minutes, has been quite good.
His eleven points are more than the rest of the defence combined (10), since Klefbom went down and when the 19th overall pick from 2011 returns to the lineup the Oilers will have two defenders who can kick start the offence from the defensive zone.
There is much more than just goals and assists when it comes to being considered an offensive player. I asked Ken Hitchcock what changes and improvements he has seen in Nurse’s offensive development since arriving as the head coach almost two months ago.
“His focus on the ice has widened,” said Hitchcock. “He was very narrow (vision) when I first came here. He didn’t see the 85 feet (ice width) very well in the offensive zone, but now he sees the 85 feet.
“I think some of it comes from playing on a 1-3-1 powerplay where he is at the top by himself and he has to use both sides of the ice. But he has gotten very patient in high pressure situations.
“His vision has improved dramatically in seeing the full width of the ice,” continued Hitchcock.
Nurse feels he is starting to become more comfortable offensively.
“I think so. Just finding the right times to shoot the puck, and get in the area to shoot it. Sometimes there is no lane so you have just put it behind the net. It is just repetition about reading the play and seeing what the right play is. I’ve been working on it for a long time and there is still lots of room to improve, but I feel I’m starting to see the game better in the offensive zone,” said Nurse.
WHAT DOES MCDAVID SEE
When we discuss offence, there are very few better to chat about it with than Connor McDavid. The league’s reigning leading scorer, two times running, knows a thing or two about offence.
“He’s been good for us since Oscar went down, and he was good before Oscar went down, but he is now getting more opportunities and more recognition,” said McDavid.
“It is his legs. Look at his chance in 3-on-3 last night. He was the guy behind our net, chips it and beats his guy up the ice and gets a chance. It starts with his legs. It is a credit to him. He is in great shape and skates well, and having speed allows you to create more offence.” said McDavid.
McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nurse hang out a lot away from the rink. They are very close, and while they have many other interests and prefer to not always talk hockey, it inevitably becomes part of the conversation from time-to-time. Nurse jokingly said it is a big benefit for him.
“We hang out a lot so maybe that is translating on the ice a bit (laughs). They are two guys that any time you find open ice they will find you, because they have that unique ability to read the ice, and the play, and for someone like me it is just about finding the right spot to get to.
McDavid and Draisaitl see the game in a way very few players do. It is difficult to explain where it came from, but they have it. McDavid discussed why he believes Nurse’s offensive game is improving.
“His offensive game is only getting better. For some people, offence doesn’t come naturally. You can’t just flick a light and offence comes to you. It is learned. It is taught, it is timing, it’s a bunch of different things that he is learning. Credit to him, he wants to learn and he is doing everything he can to figure it out. I think we are seeing it in the amount of plays he is making and when he is making them, ” said McDavid.
Nurse has 22 points in 44 games this year and should shatter his previous high of 26 points, which he accumulated last season. He sits 28th overall among NHL defenders, and he has taken advantage of the opportunity presented to him when Klefbom was injured.
Now that he has expanded his vision in the offensive zone, the Oilers are hopeful his overall play will expand so he can be looked at as a legit top pairing defender. He is still in the early stages of his NHL development, but the strides he’s made over the past 18 months, and specifically the past six weeks, make you wonder just how far his offensive growth will go.