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Edmonton Oilers player review and 2021-22 preview: Darnell Nurse

Welcome to the 2020-21 season review and 2021-22 season preview player-by-player! In this, and other articles, I’ll be, well, reviewing the Edmonton Oilers 2020-21 season and previewing the 2021-22 season. You can read about the analytics behind my analysis here.

Few players were more polarizing in Edmonton than Darnell Nurse last year.

On one contingent you had his detractors. People who couldn’t buy into the success that he was having or the way he was shooting the lights out. They still felt he had so much more to do to improve to be the elite NHL defenceman he is now going to be paid as.

The other side? Well, you had his staunchest supporters. The people who don’t care what his analytics said. They are the ones who by eye see what he’s doing: putting up points, laying big hits, fighting people, and being a mauler.

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Truth be told Nurse is still somewhere in the middle. Not quite in the conversation for the elite of the elite defensemen in the NHL, but far from someone who isn’t a top-pairing rearguard on the majority of teams in the NHL.

Nurse’s 2019-20 season, no matter how you cut it, was nothing short of tremendous. He took impressive strides in his game as he showed his ability to defend, and showed his ability to jump up in the play.

He scored 16 goals and 36 points in 56 games that placed him second in the league in goals among defencemen. Yeah, he had a good year. Upon first glance, his underlying numbers were strong, too. With him on the ice at 5×5, the Oilers controlled 51.08 percent of the shot attempts, 55.91 percent of the goal share and 51.45 percent of the expected goal share. Not bad, right?

For the most part, yeah. His on-ice shooting percentage of 10.66 was second amongst all defenceman who played over 1000 minutes last year. It’s a number well above the mean that usually rests around 8-9 percent.

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But in the same breath, it’s not unprecedented to have a defenceman be able to sustain that over longer periods.

Take a look at Caps defenceman John Carlson, for example. Between 2018-19 and 2020-21, three years of data, he carried a 5×5 on-ice shooting percentage of 10.84. His most common offensive linemates in that time were nothing short of impressive in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie — three very talented players offensively.

Similarly, over that time frame, Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly posted a 10.29 oish% at 5×5. His most common linemates were no slouches either in Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Auston Matthews.

Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, meanwhile, are Nurse’s most common linemates.

Nurse’s individual shooting percentage of 10.4 is unsustainably high for a defenceman given that the mean rests around half of that for the average defenceman. It’s an number that I wracked my brain around with Leon Draisaitl, too.

In 2018-19, he shot 21.6 percent over an 82 game schedule and he scored 50 goals. That 21.6 is over two times the league average and a significant jump from his 13.7 sh% he averaged before. I never thought he would be able to keep such a high shooting percentage up but here we are and over the last two years he’s shot at 19.2 percent.

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Will Darnell be able to do the same? The odds aren’t in his favour, but they also weren’t in Draisaitl’s case, either. Nurse has one goal on seven shots so far this preseason, giving him a 14.29 shooting percentage. Too soon to say.

At the end of the day, the Oilers will be relying on Nurse heavily again this year to do lots of heavy lifting. Work needs to continue on the defensive play and his goals-against number needs to shrink, too.

I’d be willing to bet on these happening, doubly so considering Nurse is a fringe player for the Men’s Canadian Olympic Hockey team which is set to head to China in February. He’s far from a lock and will be in tough contending for a spot on the backend.


Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at [email protected]