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Darnell Nurse: Is it better to go short?

Over the last week, there has been plenty of talk surrounding Darnell Nurse and his next contract. Some of that talk has turned into anger directed at the Oilers defensemen that stems from a report that his camp views Jacob Trouba’s seven-year $56 million contract as comparable for Nurse’s next deal.

That combined with the fact Nurse had a rough night against the Arizona Coyotes earlier this week has some fans hoping the Oilers avoid a long-term deal with the 25-year-old. Some also want him traded. There are also some who still look at him as a core piece of this team and hope he’s signed long-term. So what would be the smartest move for the Oilers? Let’s go through them each respectively.

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GOING LONG-TERM

Feb 27, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) warms up before the start of their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Look at the numbers. Darnell Nurse is a solid NHL defenseman. He plays a lot of minutes, since the beginning of last season no Oilers d-man has played more, and he also produces a good amount of offence at even-strength.  Since the start of the 2018/19 season, Nurse has the best points/60 and the second-best first assists/60 (only Caleb Jones is better) at even strength. Compared to the rest of the league, he ranks pretty high as well. Among d-men who have played at least 500 minutes since the start of the 2018/19, season, Nurse ranks 41st in even-strength points/60 and 46th in first assists/60.

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His defensive numbers aren’t as pretty. Once again using the start of the 2018/19 season as the sample size, Nurse ranks 8th among Oilers d-men in even-strength on-ice Corsi For Percentage, 7th in on-ice Shots For percentage, and 3rd in Scoring Chances For percentage. (among defensemen who have played a minimum 300 minutes). Despite those numbers, he and his current d-partner Ethan Bear are 1-2 on the team in even-strength expected GF%. Compared to the rest of the league, he ranks 135th in expected GF%. It’s also worth noting that he plays a lot of time with Connor McDavid.

He’s a competent defender at even-strength and is good at supplying offence. Are there warts in his game? For sure. He struggles to pass the puck, although he is great at skating it up the ice, and he has some mental lapses in his own end that can result in some pretty high danger scoring chances.

I’m sure the Oilers value the intangibles he brings as well. He’s a mean defenseman which coaches always seem to love, he’s a part of the leadership group of this team, and he’s very close with McDavid and Draisaitl. That holds value as well.

If you could get a long-term deal done around $6-6.5 million, I’m sure the Oilers would like to do that. The problem might be their cap situation. If they can’t trade Kris Russell or find another way to free up some money, then they might need to save every little bit they can. In two-years, their cap situation will be vastly different and they will presumably have some added flexibility. 

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In two-years, their blueline could also look vastly different. Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear could be established NHLers by that point and the team should know what they have in Evan Bouchard. Also, left-shot prospect Philip Broberg should be close to NHL ready. Will they still be happy with paying Nurse 6.5 million if their blueline is filled with young players that move the puck better than him? I’m not so sure.

Looking at Nurse’s game, do you see a scenario where a $6.5 million contract suddenly becomes a bargain in two years, as Oscar Klefbom’s current $4.1 million deal does? I’m also not too sure about that. Going long-term with Nurse does come with some risk and I’m not sure if Holland will be willing to take that plunge this summer, especially if there’s a chance to sign him to a shorter-term deal with a much lower cap-hit.

EXPLORING A TRADE

Jan 10, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Darnell Nurse (25) celebrates the first period goal against the Florida Panthers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to get a lot, you usually have to give a lot. Trading Darnell Nurse would certainly bring back a lot. How many teams would be willing to part with a really good, young forward to get their hands on a 25-year-old defenseman who skates well, has good offensive numbers, and has a mean side. Plenty of GMs would love to bring Nurse into their organization.

Despite that, I believe it would be a mistake for the Oilers to trade Nurse this summer.

Obviously, if they get offered someone like Jonathan Huberdeau, Kyle Connor, or someone along those lines, you would have to pull the trigger, but I doubt a deal like that would be available.

If we’re talking about trading Nurse for someone like Kasperi Kapanen or even Nik Ehlers, I would be hesitant. If Nurse is off the left side of this team’s defence, they’re left with Oscar Klefbom, Caleb Jones, and Kris Russell. I don’t love the look of that group. They could move someone like Matt Benning to his off side, but even that leaves them with a less than idea top six.

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The bottom line is that right now, they need Nurse more than they need a top-six winger and they could probably get a good forward without giving up Nurse. Even if they signed Nurse to a long-term deal for around $6.5 million, that’s still a contract they could move rather easily in two years if they decide that they have better, younger options in their system.

A SHORT-TERM DEAL

Dec 12, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Jordan Greenway (18) fights with Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) during the second period at Xcel Energy Center.

This is the option that makes the most sense. If the Oilers are uneasy about going long-term and over $6 million with Nurse for whatever reason, then a two or three year deal might make sense, especially if you can keep the cap-hit close to $5 million a season

For the Oilers, it gives them some flexibility. Two years from now, both Kris Russell and Adam Larsson will be off the books and James Neal will be in the last year of his contract. There will be lots of money off the books so even if they needed to dish out $7.5 million on Nurse, they could do it. Also, the cap will surely go up which will also help.

For Nurse, the deal would bring him right up to unrestricted free agency at a point where the salary cap could be significantly higher than it is now with both a new CBA and a new TV deal potentially coming.

To me, even if Darnell Nurse shores up his game and becomes a better passer, will he suddenly be worth more than $7 million? Even if he is, the salary cap ceiling could reach a point where you’re okay with paying him that much. At that point, the emergence of players like Jones, Broberg, Bear, Bouchard, and even Dmitri Samorukov could make Nurse expendable anyways. They have so many good, young defensive prospects that I would be hesitant about paying Nurse big money right now, especially when his game is far from perfect.

If Nurse is willing to sign a six-year deal for around $6 million, then I would do it. If he wants north of $7 million and won’t sign for less, then I believe a 2-3 year contract with a cap hit of $5-5.5 million might be the best option for the Oilers as Ken Holland continues to build a winning team while trying to navigate a tricky cap situation.

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It will come down to how much cap space Holland can create this summer, how he views his prospects, and also how badly Darnell Nurse wants to be an Oiler.

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