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How good is Darnell Nurse?

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Photo credit:© James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
7 months ago
For the Edmonton Oilers, this past summer was quite the busy one.
Their off-season was filled with moves that sparked countless debates and arguments, such as the Duncan Keith trade, the Warren Foegele/Ethan Bear deal on Free Agency Day, etc. Roughly a week later, Edmonton came to terms with defenceman Darnell Nurse on a maximum term extension, with an average annual value of $9.25M. 
It’s a massive deal, as Nurse will possess the 7th highest cap-hit in 2022-23 among NHL defencemen. 
Prior to his current extension, Nurse signed two bridge deals with AAVs of $3.2M and $5.6M respectively. It wasn’t shocking that he would pursue a long-term deal, but his cap-hit is certainly quite high. 
Recently, there’s been plenty of debate about Nurse’s play and contract. He’s had a rough defensive stretch as of late, which was especially visible in Edmonton’s 9-5 loss to Calgary.
In this piece, I’ll break down Nurse’s play in the past two years, alongside his current season thus far. To what extent has he performed well this year, in comparison to his prior seasons? Can he live up to his lofty cap-hit next season?
*All stats via EvolvingHockey, Natural Stat Trick and PuckIQ and all contract-related info via PuckPedia unless stated otherwise

Nurse’s play in the prior two seasons

I primarily use scoring chances and expected goals in this article, as I’ve found that there’s quite a lot of fluctuation and variance in goal differential for defencemen, season by season. This is especially true for a guy like Nurse, who experienced unsustainable shooting/on-ice luck last season, which has regressed this year, in spite of his xGF totals remaining fairly constant.
Back to the original point, throughout his NHL career, Nurse’s primary strength has been his offensive play.
He has always thrived at entering the offensive zone with possession, and creating scoring chances off of these entries. His excellent offensive play-driving numbers were largely the result of his excellent puck-moving ability. He’s always been a talented and athletic skater.
However, the same praise can’t be said for his defensive play.
In prior years, Nurse has struggled to defend and stand up his blue-line, consistently allowing chances off the rush against at an exceedingly high rate. 
In addition, Entry Defence isn’t the only defensive facet Nurse struggled in. 
Recently, I attempted to develop a metric to measure pure In-Zone Defensive play (separate from Rush Defence), and I wrote a bit about it in this article here (I may write an entire piece about this in the future)
Essentially, this metric evaluates a defenceman’s ability to prevent high-quality chances near the front of their net, and how well they perform at suppressing scoring chances subsequent to a shift start in the defensive zone. This metric I developed has a higher correlation (Pearson’s R) to xGA and GA than Entry Defence.
In 19-20, Nurse’s In-Zone Defence score ranked in the 24th percentile. In 20-21, it ranked in the 5th percentile. This metric doesn’t account for the quality of competition, but even relative to other top-pairing defenceman, this is an exceedingly poor sign.
I’ve watched the entirety of Nurse’s career in Edmonton, and I’ve felt that his biggest flaw is his overall decision-making in his own zone. He often appears disoriented in the DZ, frequently gets lost in coverage, and is prone to making simple errors. Courtesy of Bryce Chevallier and InStatHockey’s metrics (a private analytics company), Nurse ranked 20th among 24 Edmonton skaters in overall Defensive Awareness in 20-21. My In-Zone Defence metric seems to agree with this. Not good.
He’s also prone to making unforced icings, resulting in extended time in his own end. Unfortunately, individual icing stats aren’t publicly available, but just based on what I saw on the ice, I think these unforced icings are a concern. On-ice icing stats are available on EvolvingHockey, and last season, the puck was iced 71 times when Nurse was on-ice, more than any other Edmonton player. Of course, not all of these icings are solely from Nurse, but it does somewhat support what I personally noticed.
Some may feel that Nurse’s results were dragged down by consistent playing time with @Tyson Barrie this past season, but Nurse has always posted below-average defensive results throughout his career. His rate of suppressing scoring chances has been poor with and without Barrie. 
Defensive play isn’t Nurse’s only flaw; his performance without McDavid is also a notable concern. Nurse had a poor expected goal differential of just 43.7% with McDavid off-ice in 20-21.
Of course, practically every Oilers player will see a considerable decline in their metrics when they’re playing away from McDavid (with the exception of Puljujärvi). 
However, relative to every other Oilers defenceman without McDavid, five of them (Jones, Bear, Larsson, Bouchard and Barrie in that order) posted a higher xGF% without McDavid in 21-22, than Nurse did. 
The argument could even be made that this is slightly biased towards Nurse. He’s spent a larger period of time alongside Draisaitl as opposed to every other Oiler defenceman, and typically receives favourable zone/shift start deployment as well.
“With or Without You” stats aren’t perfect, and they can occasionally be misleading due to lack of context, but I feel this is something worth pointing out. Top-pairing defencemen shouldn’t require constant playing time alongside the best player in the league to be successful.
Combine his poor defensive metrics with his mediocre play away from McDavid and below-average results on special teams, and the consequent result is a very talented/skilled, yet flawed player.

2021-22 (so far)

Nurse’s performance thus far has been fascinating. 
His goal-scoring has massively declined; Nurse’s EV Goals/60 in 20-21 was nearly three times higher than his EV Goals/60 this season.  It was entirely predictable that he wouldn’t sustain this level of production from last year. Nurse’s shooting percentage in 20-21 was nearly five times higher than his SH% in 19-20. A significant decrease in his finishing shouldn’t shock anyone.
In regards to the flaws in Nurse’s game that I pointed out in his prior seasons, did he see any improvement in those categories?
The answer is yes, in some of them.
First, let’s talk about the bright side of Nurse’s 21-22 season.
Nurse’s overall xGF impact and entry transition have remained strong. His xGF ranks in the 83rd percentile. However, his overall defence and xGA impact have considerably improved. The largest reason for this improvement is due to how he refined his issues with zone denials. 
Relative to prior years, he isn’t backing in on entries against as much, and he doesn’t allow a large number of rush chances on his entries against. Part of this is due to the departure of Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair, as Edmonton, as a team, has vastly improved at defending chances off the rush under Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson, but Nurse’s entry defence had begun improving since the first game of the season. Nurse’s overall Entry Defence score ranks in the 79th percentile (it’s still in the 71st percentile if you remove his games under Woodcroft/Manson). His gap control still isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly improved from a statistical standpoint.
Edmonton’s two worst defencemen this season in regards to defensive play have been Evan Bouchard and Tyson Barrie, or in other words, Nurse’s most frequent linemates. Consequently, this makes his defensive improvement more impressive.
Furthermore, Nurse has seen improvements in two other areas as well. Firstly, Nurse has managed to sustain a positive expected goal differential with McDavid off-ice, of 51.7%, which is quite impressive. Relative to every other Oilers defenceman (minimum 200 TOI) without McDavid, he ranks first in this respect. It’s great to see a decrease in his reliance on McDavid, relative to prior seasons.
The other improvement is his performance against top competition. Here’s how every Edmonton defenceman plays against “elites,” or in other words, top lines and top defence pairs.
In 20-21, Nurse’s relative DFF% against Elite QOC was at -1.7%. The year prior, it was at +1.5%. Consequently, Nurse never had any eye-popping or spectacular track record against top competition, but his performance against elites has been excellent this year relative to the team. This is largely due to improvement in defensive play. 
Bouchard and (especially) Barrie both struggle against elites on their own, but they perform much better alongside Nurse. He’s certainly elevating the play of his defence partners.
In several respects then, Nurse has addressed some of his previously existing flaws, and he deserves full credit for it. However, some notable concerns about Nurse’s play still remain. I would like to highlight four such areas.
The first one is somewhat insignificant, but Nurse is taking minor penalties at a higher rate this season. Nurse was at 0.68 Minor Penalties/60 in the past two years, and 0.89 this season. Of course, this isn’t an overly significant concern, but something worth noting.
The next one is a bit of an alarming concern, but Nurse has actually dragged down @Connor McDavid’s performance this season.
In prior seasons, McDavid performed better alongside Nurse, especially offensively. However, this season, in nearly every respect, McDavid has been a superior player with Nurse off-ice. 
Even if you want to look at traditional, simple goal differential, McDavid has been on-ice for 24 goals with Nurse, and 21 goals against, which equates to a GF% of 53.3%. With Nurse off-ice, McDavid is 35 – 24 in goals, a GF% of 59.3%.
Of course, they still perform fine together, but to see a decrease in McDavid’s play with Nurse is certainly a concern in my eyes.
I have a theory for why this may be the case, which relates to my third concern with his play: his excessive and overwhelming rate of low-quality point shots. 
He ranks 4th in the league in total shot attempts/60 among defencemen, much higher than in previous years. Out of his 308 shot attempts, only 47% of them have hit the net (145). A whopping 96 of them have been blocked, and he’s fifth among Edmonton defencemen in individual shot quality (ixG/iCF). Nurse’s overall On-ice Offensive impact on Quality For (xGF/FF) has also decreased this season.
To tie into my previous point, McDavid and Nurse have been on-ice for 640 shot attempts at 5v5. 128 of them have been taken by McDavid, while 156 of them have been taken by Nurse; in other words, nearly one-fourth of their on-ice CF is from Nurse alone. Perhaps there may be other factors involved, but I’d assume this is the most likely reason we see McDavid improve without Nurse.
Especially with the best player in the league on ice, a defenceman should not be taking so many shots attempts, especially low-quality ones that are frequently blocked. 
Finally, Nurse’s poor in-zone defence remains an issue. 
Nurse’s Entry Defence score significantly jumped from the 11th percentile to the 79th percentile, and yet his xGA impact is still only marginally above-average. His impact on actual goals against is slightly higher, but still nothing exceptional.
His In-Zone Defence score was in the 6th percentile in 20-21 and in the 19th percentile this season. Nurse ranks 2nd last on the team in suppressing scoring chances after a defensive zone shift start, and his quality against (xGA/FA) is still only in the 28th percentile. He’s still often allowing high-quality chances, and still has issues with poor anticipation and awareness in his DZ. 
Overall, Nurse has improved to an extent this season, but as expected, his production and on-ice GF totals have regressed. I think it’s unfair to criticize him for this, as his offensive totals in 20-21 were never sustainable. 
He’s taken some very encouraging steps, but there are still areas for improvement.

Conclusion

I think my visualization above does a fairly accurate job at summarizing Nurse’s overall play in the past two seasons.
Nurse is a gifted and talented offensive defenceman, who’s above average at exiting the zone, breaking the puck out, supporting the forwards in the offensive zone, and he’s essentially elite at transporting and moving the puck into the OZ. His skating skills are superb. He also provides elements of bodychecking and effort that certain fans will love, and his overall athletic abilities are excellent.
Nurse’s power-play results are also quite good, as the top PP unit generates the most goals with Nurse on-ice in the past two seasons, as opposed to Barrie and Bouchard. It seems like Edmonton’s PP1 benefits the most from a left-shot defenceman.
However, his excessive rate of low-quality shots is concerning, and his defensive stats all-around are a cause for concern, both at EV and on the PK. His Entry Defence has improved, but Nurse is still quite poor at defending and suppressing high-danger chances in his own zone. He’s one of Edmonton’s most unreliable defencemen in regards to taking defensive zone shift starts and preventing chances (FYI, Cody Ceci has Edmonton’s most reliable d-man in this aspect this year).
I personally think Nurse’s true value lies somewhere around the ~$6.5-7M range. 
I think it was a massive mistake to extend Nurse at such a lofty cap-hit subsequent to a season where he posted an unsustainable shooting% and PDO (a proxy for puck luck)
I understand the argument that Nurse shouldn’t be evaluated this season based on his $9.25M contract, as this contract only kicks in next season. However, his contract was based on Holland’s evaluation of his play in past seasons. It should be perfectly fair to mention his upcoming contract when discussing his current/past performance, as this performance is what Holland evaluated to sign him in the first place.
In addition, it’s unlikely that Nurse will considerably improve at this stage of his career. For Nurse to suddenly improve in 6-7 months to an extent that makes him worth his $9.25 cap-hit, isn’t impossible, but highly improbable.
The low-quality point shots can certainly be fixed with the right coaching, and they’ve seen a marginal improvement under Woodcroft/Manson. Perhaps his results alongside McDavid could improve as well, as McDavid was superior with Nurse on-ice in 2020-21.
If he was younger, it would be much easier to tolerate his mistakes in his in-zone play, but at age 27, can Nurse really improve his DZ decision-making and overall defensive awareness to a considerable extent?
To clarify, I’m not denying that Nurse isn’t Edmonton’s best defenceman, because he is. There isn’t a single defenceman on this roster that’s currently superior. There’s a plausible chance that Evan Bouchard can surpass him in the future, but currently, Bouchard’s defensive metrics are even worse.

Credit him for the improvements he’s made this season, and recognize he is Edmonton’s top defenceman, but also acknowledge the weaknesses in his performance. In my mind, Nurse is currently a very talented, but flawed #2 D. 
Hopefully, he can still address those flaws soon and give the Oilers everything they need from him in their potential playoff run.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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