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Darnell Nurse, his strong play, and more

The Oilers blueline was a major concern heading into the season. With Oscar Klefbom out for the year, they were going to need both their returning to players to really up their games and their new additions to outperform their contracts.

Caleb Jones has been up and down, Kris Russell has been in and out of the lineup, and Adam Larsson has had some really tough moments. One defenseman that has played some great hockey is Darnell Nurse and I don’t think he’s getting enough love from a lot of Oilers fans.

Some people are nit-picking his game a little bit and saying that he’s been jumping up into the rush too much or that he’s been turning over too many pucks and I’ll be honest, I’m just not seeing it. Is he jumping up in the rush a lot? For sure. Have the results been good? They have! So why complain about something that’s working?

If you don’t think Nurse has played well this season, then you’re just arguing against facts.

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Nurse has played the most minutes at 5v5 in the entire NHL (all numbers are as of the Oilers’ last game). Not just defensemen, all players. When he’s on the ice at 5v5, the Oilers have outscored the opposition 15-12 and outshot them 141-131. His 5v5 on-ice CF% is 52.25%. (numbers via Natural Stat-Trick)

You might say that those numbers aren’t spectacular but considering the context of his minutes, they are very good. He’s starting 55% of his shifts in either the neutral zone or his own end of the ice. 

On top of that, he’s regularly going up against the other team’s best players. He’s played 229 minutes at 5v5. Here are the forwards he’s played more than 20 minutes against: Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Blake WheelerThat’s a good group of players and you know how many of them have a 5v5 SF% better than 50.1% when they’re on the ice against Darnell Nurse? Zero. When it’s Nurse on the ice against the other team’s best, the Oilers often win the shot battle.

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The Oilers are using Nurse as a top-pairing defenseman and they’re getting good results. That’s the bottom line. In the past, I haven’t been the biggest fan of his but he’s changing my mind with his play this season.

If you want to critique small parts of Nurse’s game, just remember that he’s playing the role of a top-pairing shutdown defenseman. That’s a tough job to have and he’s not just surviving in that role, he’s playing well. With Klefbom out, the Oilers needed someone to take a big step forward and Nurse has done exactly that.

Now that I have that off my chest, here are a couple of other things I noticed when I was scanning through Natural Stat Trick:

The Leon Draisaitl line has been incredibly productive at 5v5.

Jan 16, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault (24) and Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (29) during a face off at the start of the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

When Draisaitl, Dominik Kahun, and Kailer Yamamoto have been on the ice at 5v5 the Oilers have outscored the opposition 7-1. They aren’t dominating the Corsi battle or outshooting the other team either, they’re just scoring more.

Draisaitl in particular has been great at 5v5. When you look at players who have played at least 100 minutes at 5v5 this season, only Esa Lindell has a better GF% (he’s been on the ice for five goals for and zero goals against). Draisaitl’s 88.24% GF% is crazy good.

He’s doing this despite starting just 43% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is low compared to other star players in the NHL. For example, Nathan Mackinnon, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, and Elias Pettersson are all over 65%.

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Draisaitl has dominated in the faceoff circle. He’s won 57.2% of his faceoffs. For reference, there are 45 centremen who have taken at least 100 faceoffs this season. Out of those players, Draisaitl is 9th in faceoff percentage.

The Oilers as a team haven’t been great at 5v5.

They currently sit in the bottom third of the league in SF% at 5v5 (according to Natural Stat Trick) and it should be no surprise that preventing shots on goal is their biggest issue. They are 12th in the league when it comes to 5v5 SF/60 but are 25th in 5v5 SA/60.

For me, it was a little concerning to see them give up as many chances as they did to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday. They gave up 31 shots on goal in 45 5v5 minutes. They did clean it up on Tuesday though, allowing just 21 shots in 45:52 of 5v5 hockey.

Last week on Oilersnation Radio, Rick said that the Oilers rough stretch seemed like it was “death by a 1000 cuts” and I agreed with him. I also said that once they started to clean up one or two things in their game, the wins would start to come. It seems like they’ve done that. I know two of their last three wins have come against the lowly Senators, but I think they still deserve credit for playing pretty well. I also thought their win over Toronto on Saturday was their best game of the year.

Hopefully, they can take another step forward Saturday night in the first Battle of Alberta of the season. It would be a perfect time to start playing your best hockey of the year.