There’s an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention, and I couldn’t help but think of it as I watched Darnell Nurse roaring up and down the ice, battling and logging tough minutes in the Edmonton Oilers’ 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers at Rogers Place Monday.
When the night was done, thanks to another bit of overtime magic from Connor McDavid and red-hot Leon Draisaitl, Nurse led every skater on the ice with 30:42 playing time with Edmonton’s blueline playing shorthanded because of injuries to Oscar Klefbom and Matt Benning. On a night when he could have had three goals, the scoresheet didn’t tell the story as Nurse finished with one assist.
It was the sheer forcefulness of Nurse’s work — jumping into the play, hacking and banging in the corners and in front of the net as usual and still having the legs to jump up into the play – that got my attention. Well, that and the fact that at just 24 years old and 266 games into his tenure with the Oilers, Nurse has become a flat-out stud on Edmonton’s blueline.
That Nurse has managed it in spite of the way he’s been brought along by the Oilers instead of because of it with a team that’s been notoriously bad at developing prospects for years and years – you can say the same thing about Klefbom – and has seen so many blueliners let go only to blossom elsewhere, it’s remarkable he’s as good as he is now as he enters his prime years.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost track of the number of prospects, be they forwards or blueliners, who have been mishandled here over the last decade. Some have been rushed to the NHL. Others have been thrown into the deep end before they’re even ready to tread water, let alone thrive, without adequate cover around them to have any real chance of being successful. They come, they go. The names we know.
Through all of it, Nurse has looked bound and determined to come out the other end being every bit as good as the Oilers hoped he could be when they selected him seventh in the 2013 Entry Draft. That was certainly the case Monday. In an era when too many prospects have withered or folded, at least in part because of the way they’ve been handled by the Oilers, Nurse is thriving.
Through the 62 games he’s played this season, Nurse has 8-27-35, marking career highs for goals, assists and points. He’s averaging 24:06 per game in ice time, which is 18th in the NHL (Klefbom leads Oilers’ skaters at 24:21). Four times this season Nurse has played 30-or-more minutes. He’s played 24-or-more minutes 33 times on a blueline that was paper-thin without Klefbom, Sekera and Kris Russell.
Nurse is the best skater the Oilers have on the blueline right now. He’s shown this season he can chip in offensively when presented the opportunity. He can transport the puck. He’s been a minute-muncher, even if he’s likely played a minute or two too much per night this season because of the circumstances he’s found himself in. All that, and he’s tough as nails and mean as hell.
THE WAY I SEE IT
I don’t know what Nurse’s top end might be. Maybe we’re seeing it now. If this is what he is, that’s fine. At worst, he’s a guy who looks like he can be counted on to play second-pairing minutes even when, of if, this team actually has some real depth on the back end. Is there more? Maybe, and with another season left on a two-year contract that pays Nurse $3.2 million a season, the Oilers have time to find out before committing more term and money.
In an era when some prospects fall by the wayside if they’re not handled just right, Nurse has prevailed and made the most of the opportunity he’s been presented, as imperfect as it has been, since getting his first taste of the NHL, two games, in 2014-15. That tells me all I need to know about him right there. The kid’s a stud.