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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Why the Concern Over Nurse’s Next Contract?

Darnell Nurse is having a stellar season, but when you look at the progress he has made over the past few years it isn’t that surprising. Nurse has improved different parts of his game over the years. This season his biggest improvements have shown up with in his decision making with the puck, as well as defending, his quick transition edges and his shot.

Nurse spent most of the off-season working on his skating. He was always a good skater, but he wanted to improve his edges and crossovers. The improvement has been noticeable. Often Nurse takes two quick crossovers, and he pulls away from an attacking forward and heads up ice. He has also shown more calm and patience in his game. He isn’t attacking forwards all the time. He lets them come to him now. There is less chasing in his game, likely a product of maturing and understanding the NHL.

He played his 400th game on Monday and many defenders have openly discussed how with experience the game seems to slow down. You see plays quicker. You react quicker and you learn when to attack and when to stay in your position defensively. We are seeing that in Nurse’s game, and both ends of the ice.

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Nurse is having an excellent season scoring goals. He has 12 goals at 5×5. Only 27 forwards have more 5×5 goals than him. He has 15 even strength goals, which is first among D-men and tied for 23rd overall. He is scoring goals like a first line winger.

Nurse has nine goals playing with Connor McDavid. Jesse Puljujarvi has eight and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has four. Playing with McDavid doesn’t ensure success. You still have to have skill to produce and Nurse has been shooting like a scoring forward when he’s in good shooting positions. The puck is off his stick quickly.

Look at his goal last night.

He receives the pass from Josh Archibald and without hesitating he snaps it home. He has scored the majority of his goals this way. He isn’t just pounding slapshots through screens that find the back of the net. Had he scored a lot of those types of goals, I could understand the concern about him having a “lucky” year. Will Nurse be on pace to score 20 goals next season? He might not, but his overall offensive production at 5×5 hasn’t been grossly ahead of previous seasons.

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Season GP TOI Goals Total A 1st A 2nd A Points Shots S%
2016 69 1190:51:00 3 3 2 1 6 112 2.68
2017 44 674:22:00 5 4 1 3 9 81 6.17
2018 82 1548:57:00 5 19 8 11 24 174 2.87
2019 82 1556:22:00 8 19 9 10 27 158 5.06
2020 71 1371:13:00 4 22 8 14 26 148 2.7
2021 51 1061:49:00 12 9 3 6 21 119 10.08

He has 21 5×5 points this season. Prorate that over an 82-game season and he’d be at 33. He had 27 in 2019 and prorated 30 last year. I’d argue his offensive production has been improving for years and not in an unsustainable fashion. He has more goals this season, but fewer assists, while his overall production has been increasing steadily for three seasons. This should be regarded as a positive.

If you want to look deeper than just goals, Dom Luszczyszyn broke down the Norris voting with his model on March 31st and had Nurse ranked 12th. That is one model, but it is based strongly around analytics, so the argument Nurse is only good because of McDavid might not be as valid as some want you to believe.

Nurse is still 12th on that ranking, even thought it doesn’t weigh actual offence that much. He is second among NHL defencemen in goals with 16. He is first in EV goals with 15 and he is tied for first in 5×5 goals with 12. Any way you slice it, Nurse is having an excellent season.

He currently leads the NHL in time on ice at 5×5 with 1,061 minutes. He has played almost 200 more than any other Oilers defender. Tyson Barrie is at 881 while Adam Larsson has skated 856 minutes. All three have played 51 games. Nurse’s value to the Oilers can’t be overlooked. The other left defenders aren’t even close: Kris Russell (568 minutes), Caleb Jones (363) and William Lagesson (253). Dmitry Kulikov has been a nice addition and solidified the second pairing, but his overall skill package isn’t close to Nurse’s.

CONTRACT VALUE…

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

To date Nurse has lived up to his contract every season. When he signed two years at $3.2m for the 2019 and 2020 seasons he became outstanding value-contract player. Over the two seasons he was ninth among D-men with 53 points at 5×5. And he played a total of 2947 at 5×5. Adam Larsson was at 2,400 minutes and Oscar Klefbom at 2,242.

This season he is up to $5.6m and again he has given the Oilers excellent value on his contract. He is in the Norris trophy conversation. He is playing huge minutes on a team without a solid second pair left defender, and he’s leading the league in goals at 5×5 and is sixth in points among blueliners.

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And his defensive play has also improved. He has shown improvement every year. On top of his offence and possession numbers, Nurse is physical and tough. If someone tries to take liberties with the Oilers’ star players, he can step in. That doesn’t happen often in today’s game, but having a player who is on the ice more than anyone else increases the chances he will be there to help when trouble arises.

The moment Nurse signed his two-year deal at $3.2million many fans fretted about his next contract. He signed that and despite him having a stellar campaign, the same concerns are being voiced. It perplexes me. How many Oilers players have lived up to their contract every season? Not many, but Nurse has.

Because he doesn’t play the powerplay, he won’t put up massive offensive numbers, and that means he won’t command huge dollars. If Nurse signs for $7-$7.5 million I don’t see it being that out of line with what he does for the team.

Edmonton doesn’t have anyone who can play his minutes and be as productive as he is. Caleb Jones, Philip Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov are not ready to play top pairing minutes and log over 25 minutes a night. Oscar Klefbom’s health is a major question, but even when he was healthy he never produced offence like Nurse has at 5×5. The big difference between the two is Nurse’s health. He hasn’t missed a game in four seasons. He had one injury in 2017, but that’s it. He is durable and his conditioning and skating ability allow him to play huge minutes without fatiguing.

Year GP TOI CF% FF% SF% GF% xG% SCF% Off. Zone Def. Zon Off. Zone %
2016 69 1190:51:00 45.67 44.61 45.19 41.67 43.96 45.57 126 159 44.21
2017 44 674:22:00 51.05 50.11 49.45 50.0 51.38 50.7 95 79 54.6
2018 82 1548:57:00 51.11 52.67 52.23 55.2 52.47 51.22 195 241 44.72
2019 82 1556:22:00 46.28 45.70 45.99 46.32 46.05 46.54 154 226 40.53
2020 71 1371:13:00 48.68 48.12 48.53 47.41 48.97 49.42 188 150 55.62
2021 51 1061:49:00 50.79 49.66 49.59 57.89 51.07 52.00 132 100 56.9

If you look at Nurse’s analytics you don’t see a massive spike. His GF% is up to 57.8, but it was 55.2% in 2018. The other improvements are a few % points, which matches his 5×5 scoring going from 27 to 30 and now on pace for 33 (in an 82-game season). Seeing consistent and constant improvement should be viewed as a positive among Oilersnation. Nurse has had more offensive zone starts the past few seasons, and he has shown an ability to produce when given those chances.

The concern surrounding Nurse’s contract has been ongoing for years, and each time he has proved the skeptics wrong. The bonus for the Oilers is they have Leon Draisaitl, who won three major awards and is the second most prolific scorer in the NHL, and he makes $8.5m.

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With a flat cap, I don’t see how Nurse would get more, so his next contract likely has a cap hit starting with a seven. Based on his current play, and the continuous growth in his game over the past few seasons, I think there is a good chance he will live up to that contract as well.

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