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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Just What the Doctor Ordered

It didn’t take long for the hashtag #NurseForNorris to appear on my Twitter timeline after the Edmonton Oilers grabbed two points with a 3-2 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday thanks to the OT winner by Darnell Nurse.

While claims to the silverware are yet to be determined, there’s no doubt from where I sit that Nurse has put himself smack-dab in the Norris Trophy conversation. That aside, Nurse, who notched his 12th goal of the season – all at even strength — to send the Oilers to Montreal to face the Canadiens tonight as winners, has been just what the doctor ordered.

On a night the Oilers needed Nurse at his best, and during a season in which the same can be said with Oscar Klefbom out for the duration, Nurse delivered. He jumped up into the rush, took a pass from Connor McDavid and buried the puck to end a game in which he was a horse again, logging 28:18 of ice time.

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I’m not sure how Nurse will stack up when it’s time to cast the Norris Trophy ballots, but I can count on one hand the number of blueliners playing better than he is right now. With 386 games in the books, Nurse, 26, is just now entering the prime of his career. Along the way to now, he’s worked his backside off to knock off the rough edges and refine his game. He’s tough. He’s talented. He’s dependable. What else is there?

WHAT’S UP DOC?

Feb 8, 2021; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) takes Ottawa Senators right wing Connor Brown (28) off the puck in the second period at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

While players like Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay and Jeff Petry of Montreal — yes, that Jeff Petry — will be two of the names on the minds of many when it’s time for voters put pen to ballot, there’s absolutely no downplaying the kind of season and the kind of impact Nurse is having. He’s been the total package.

With 12-15-27, Nurse leads NHL defencemen in goals and even-strength goals, with a couple of game-winners for good measure. He’s in the top-10 in points and top-five in ice time. He’s second in plus-minus at plus-22. Numbers aside, Nurse will still punch you in the mouth, if that’s what it takes to get the job done. Between Nurse and free agent signing Tyson Barrie, Dave Tippett has one of the most productive blueline groups in the league.

“The offensive part of it is a bonus,” Tippett said. “He’s really put a lot of work into his game, both physically and learning. I know (coach) Jim Playfair and him spent a lot of time, Nursey spends a lot of time himself, really digging into how he’s playing, the details of the game and the details of how to get better. I give him a ton of credit. Like I said this morning, he’s an athlete that’s all-in on making sure he’s prepared and willing to do his part.

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“With that, it just shows his leadership and importance to our team because he’s a guy that plays big minutes, he plays a big role in our leadership on and off the ice. You like to see guys that put the work in and are passionate about getting better, you like to see them get the results. It’s a great feather in the cap and there’s a lot of young players who should be looking at what he’s doing and recognize that’s how you get better.”

All-in and passionate about getting better. Being an example to young players while still being a relatively young player himself, at least in defenceman years. If that doesn’t sound like a Norris pitch, I don’t know what does. It’s also worth mentioning that Nurse in the first year of a two-year bridge contract with an AAV of $5.6 million. Nurse is going to get paid. That, like how he stacks up in the Norris race, is down the road.

THE WAY I SEE IT

Mar 3, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) during the game between the Stars and the Oilers at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

“I just want to generate more from the opportunities I have,” said Nurse, who has a chance to take a run at his career-high of 41 points from two seasons ago in just 56 games. “Over the course of the years playing in this league I’ve found a way to get to good scoring positions, but I haven’t really capitalized. I feel like this year it’s more so coming because I’m getting myself back to those spots.”

For better or worse, numbers draw most of the attention when it comes to discussing and voting on trophies like the Norris and Nurse has put himself in that conversation with highlight clips like his OT winner Monday. Down the stretch, it’s the completeness of his game, the leadership and the commitment to both ends of the ice that will make Nurse equally important to the Oilers.

Norris Trophy candidate? Damn straight.

Previously by Robin Brownlee