As we know by now, Ken Holland is going to have a very busy summer.
He has a bunch of salary cap room and a laundry list of areas for the Oilers to improve after back-to-back losses in the first round of the playoffs.
The Oilers need to add depth to their top-nine forward group, a decision needs to be made on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the longest-serving member of the team, there needs to be a contingency plan on the blueline for Oscar Klefbom, who may or may not be back to full strength, and the goaltending tandem needs to be addressed.
Beyond all of that, Holland can also start negotiating a new contract with Darnell Nurse. Nurse is eligible to test unrestricted free agency next summer and will be seeking a big, long-term contract after he put together the best season of his career to date in 2021.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday question. How high would you go on Nurse’s contract extension? Is this summer the right time to get a deal done? Has Nurse proved that he’s worth top-pairing defenceman money?
The Oilers selected Nurse back in 2013 with the No. 7 overall pick in the draft. He would spend the 2013-14 season in the OHL but earned a two-game cup of coffee with the Oilers off the hop in 2014-15. He went back to Sault Ste. Marie after that and also played a big role on Canada’s blueline at the World Juniors. Nurse was named the player of the gold medal game and went the entire tournament without being on the ice for a goal against at even strength.
After nine games in the AHL in 2015-16, Nurse was called up to the Oilers for good. He played 69 games in his rookie season, posting 10 points and logging 20:14 per night. In 2016-17, Nurse was limited to just 44 games due to injury and played on the team’s third pairing alongside Matt Benning, logging 17:01 per game.
Nurse took on a bigger role on Edmonton’s blueline in 2017-18 with Andrej Sekera on the sidelines for most of the season. He played in all 82 games, scored 26 points, and logged 22:15 per game. It took until mid-September for the Oilers and Nurse to come to terms on his post-entry-level contract, as the two sides ultimately agreed to a two-year bridge deal worth $3,200,000 annually.
In 2018-19, Nurse broke out offensively, putting up 41 points over 82 games. He continued operating at a similar pace in 2019-20 but it wasn’t enough for the team to offer him a long-term contract at the time. In February of 2020, the Oilers and Nurse agreed to another two-year bridge deal, this time worth $5,600,000 annually, that walked him right to free agency.
Finally, we have the 2021 season, undoubtedly the best of Nurse’s career. With Oscar Klefbom out the entire season after getting shoulder surgery, Nurse stepped up and logged a career-high 25:38 on Edmonton’s blueline. He scored 36 points in 56 games and had a very impressive 86-to-61 on-ice goal differential at even strength. Though he wasn’t a finalist for the Norris Trophy, Nurse surely received some votes.
Here we are now. Nurse has one more season on that aforementioned bridge deal and will be eligible to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career next off-season. Holland will be able to negotiate a contract extension with Nurse this summer and will surely work to get him locked up long-term.
Holland wasn’t comfortable signing Nurse to a long-term deal back in 2020, but he won’t have any choice now. Nurse established himself as a legitimate top-pairing defenceman in 2021 and will get paid as such if he reaches the open market. The Oilers obviously don’t want to let Nurse walk next summer, so getting an extension done this off-season is a big priority for Holland.
But how much can he realistically pay to keep Nurse around?
Back in February of 2020, Nurse’s camp used Jacob Trouba, who signed a seven-year contract worth $8,000,000 annually, as their comparable. On the other side, the obvious comparable for the Oilers was Josh Morrissey, another defender selected in the first round of the 2013 draft. Morrissey signed an eight-year deal with the Jets worth $6,250,000 right before the start of the 2019-20 season.
Trouba and Nurse’s contract situations are fairly similar. Back in July of 2018, Trouba had two more years of team control left before he could become a UFA. He inked a one-year deal with the Jets worth $5,500,000 and was a restricted free agent when it expired. Troubla would post a career-high 50 points in 82 games in 2018-19 and he and the Jets opted to part ways. The Jets traded Trouba to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and a first-round pick and he then agreed to the aforementioned seven-year deal worth $8,000,000 annually with his new club.
The difference between Trouba and Nurse is that Nurse’s final year of team control is already accounted for on his current two-year bridge deal, so any extension that he signs will exclusively be unrestricted free agent years. Given the fact Nurse operated at a 52-point pace in the shortened 2021 season, his camp will likely be using Trouba as a comparable again.
Now, of course, another key difference here is that Trouba’s deal was signed in the pre-COVID era. Free agents all around have and will continue to feel the pinch of the NHL’s revenue shortfall in 2019-20 and 2021 as the salary cap isn’t expected to go up for a few seasons.
The biggest deal signed by a defender last off-season was Alex Pietrangelo, who got a seven-year deal worth $8,800,000 annually from the Golden Knights. Torey Krug signed a seven-year deal worth $6,500,000 annually with the Blues and Jonas Brodin re-upped with the Wild for $6,000,000 annually over seven years. Nurse won’t command what Pietrangelo got, but he’s better than both Krug and Brodin and should land somewhere in the middle.
What say you, Nation? How much would you offer Nurse on a long-term deal? Has he proved that he can be Edmonton’s No. 1 defenceman long-term? I think a seven-year deal worth $7,000,000 annually would be a win for the Oilers, but I imagine Nurse will be looking for more. What do you think?
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