A year ago, Darnell Nurse’s contract was the hot topic of conversation. The former seventh-overall pick’s entry-level deal had expired, and while he had shown many positive flashes, Nurse had yet to establish himself as a top-pairing defenceman at the NHL level.
The debate at that time was whether the cap-strapped Oilers should invest long-term in Nurse or instead sign him to a shorter term, show-me deal. Nurse’s negotiations with the Oilers spilled intro training camp until the two sides ultimately agreed to take the bridge deal route, resulting in a two-year deal worth $3,200,000.
His first season on his new deal went incredibly well. An injury to Oscar Klefbom allowed Nurse to slide up to the top spot on the Oilers’ depth chart and onto the team’s first power-play unit. Nurse broke out for 41 points, tops among Oilers defencemen by a mile, and he averaged a career-high 23:49 minutes per game.
If Nurse puts up another season like he did last year, he’ll be in line for a big payday.
At a glance, if Nurse has the season he did last year, that’ll be a good thing for the Oilers. He put up strong offensive numbers, logged major minutes, and appeared to be the defenceman we hoped he would become when he was drafted back in 2013. Him having that season again is key for the team and their faint playoff contention hopes.
But, on the other hand, we’ll be back at square one. This time last year, the debate was whether Nurse was worth a big, long-term contract. Was he a true top-pairing defenceman? Can he provide offence? Shut down the other team’s best players? If you’re going to shell out big dollars, you need to be sure the player can take on the role.
When pondering what Nurse’s next contract will look like, we have four RFA-aged defencemen who inked multi-year deals this off-season…
Jacob Trouba: Seven-year deal worth $8,000,000 annually. One season from unrestricted free agency. Coming off a 50-point season.
Esa Lindell: Six-year deal worth $5,800,000 annually. Three seasons from unrestricted free agency. Coming off a 32-point season.
Samuel Girard: Seven-year deal worth $5,000,000 annually. Five seasons from unrestricted free agency. Coming off a 27-point season.
Ryan Murray: Signed a two-year deal worth $4,600,000 annually. Two seasons from unrestricted free agency. Coming off a 29-point season.
Trouba was the big fish. The Jets dealt him to the New York Rangers because he didn’t want to continue his career in Winnipeg. New York quickly inked him to a seven-year deal worth $8,000,000 annually. This is the top-end of what Nurse could be looking at next summer. Trouba was one year away from unrestricted free agency and he broke out for a career-high with 50 points. In the previous two seasons, Trouba scored 33 and 24 points in seasons plagued with some injury issues.
Samuel Girard and Esa Lindell are two lower-end comparables for Nurse. Lindell is more of a defensive defenceman, as his 32 points last year was a new career-high. Girard is even more of an unproven commodity as he’s played just two full seasons in the NHL. The final comparable I included was Ryan Murray, the oft-injured former second-overall pick. Murray is a good player but he hasn’t played more than 60 games in his past three seasons. Even if Nurse doesn’t have as effective of a season as he did in 2018-19, these comparables will warrant him earning a significant raise on his current $3,200,000 annual salary.
If Nurse has another 40-point year logging 23 minutes a night, he’ll be in the discussion for a contract similar to what Trouba got. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll easily be in the $5,000,000 range like Lindell and Girard, both of whom had proved less in the NHL than Nurse has when they signed their deals. If Nurse has a poor or injury-riddled season, a short-term deal like Murray’s is possible, but his $4,600,000 figure would be the low end of negotiations.
As I said earlier, Nurse commanding a top-defender contract isn’t a bad thing for the Oilers. It means he’s become the player they wanted him to when he was drafted. Nurse is a good player, he’s still got room to get better, and you can never have too many quality defencemen. Still, just as it was last summer, the question will be whether or not Nurse is worth that big, long-term deal similar to what Trouba got from the Rangers.
Given the team’s cap situation, roster composition, and the influx of blueline prospects coming up, there’s a difficult decision on the horizon.