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The Revival of Darnell Nurse

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Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Yaremchuk
2 months ago
The Oilers have rattled off eight wins in a row and don’t look now, but if you sort the Western Conference standings by points percentage, the Edmonton Oilers are sitting in a playoff spot.
I’ll be honest, there were points in November when I wasn’t sure if this turnaround was going to happen at all, never mind this quickly.
There was a lot going wrong earlier in the season, and this recent stretch has featured a tidal wave of ‘positive regression’.
On the day that the Oilers fired Jay Woodcroft, they sat 30th in the league at 5v5 shooting percentage and 30th in the league at 5v5 save percentage. Their powerplay was operating at 23.9%, which was still top ten in the league but nearly 10% less than what it was last season, and they had the 30th-ranked PK in the league.
They struggled to play a full sixty minutes, they blew a lot of leads, and they couldn’t get a bounce or a stop from their goalies to save their lives. It also didn’t help that Connor McDavid was struggling to produce and wasn’t anywhere near 100% healthy.
Now? Well, it’s basically the exact opposite.
The powerplay has scored on 32.6% of their chances since the coaching change and is humming along at 44% during this eight-game winning streak. The penalty kill is third in the league since Mark Stuart started running things and perhaps most importantly, they’re getting some luck and some saves.
Stuart Skinner is looking like the goalie who saved their season last year and pucks are finding the back of the net. Since November 12th, the Oilers have the eighth-highest 5v5 shooting percentage and while they’re still 22nd in 5v5 save percentage, they’re giving up fewer chances and their goalies have been far from a problem.
In fact, their goalies have actually held them in more than a few games during this heater.
Still, I’m not willing to say that the coaching change is the sole reason why the Oilers are looking like the team that dominated the league down the stretch last season because… well, they are looking exactly like the team that dominated the final few months of the 2022-23 season and that team was coached by Jay Woodcroft.
I really do believe that this turnaround would have happened regardless of if they made a coaching change, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be giving some credit to this new coaching staff for some of the things that they’ve done well.
There have been some changes to the way this team is playing and perhaps none are more noticeable than the resurgence of some of their blueliners.
Mattias Ekholm looks healthy and effective, Evan Bouchard has been making less mistakes, Brett Kulak and Vinny Desharnais have been giving the team solid minutes, and perhaps most importantly: Darnell Nurse is back to looking like a legit top-pairing defenseman.

THE REVIVAL OF DARNELL NURSE

Nov 24, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Sonny Milano (15) skates with the puck as Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) defends in the first period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Alright everybody, gather around and listen up, because there is something I really need to get off my chest.
It’s time to put some respect on Darnell Nurse’s name.
This guy has been taking heaps of criticism from the fan base for well over a year now and while I totally understand that some of it was justified, for the most part, it went way too far.
Does his contract suck? Sure. But don’t get mad at Darnell Nurse for that. Get mad at Peter Chiarelli and Ken Holland, who continually kicked the can down the road with Nurse by giving him bridge deal after bridge deal instead of committing long-term to a player who very clearly wanted to be an Edmonton Oiler.
Don’t get mad at Darnell Nurse for having a great season leading into a summer when he was eligible for an extension.
Get mad at the Chicago Blackhawks for backing up the Brinks truck for Seth Jones and totally throwing off the market for young defensemen.
The fact that Darnell Nurse became the face of fan criticism over the last 18 months has always driven me nuts. To steal a line from my good friend Lowetide, “You can complain about Darnell Nurse when the Oilers find a defenseman that is better than Darnell Nurse”.
I always loved that line and it’s part of the reason why I always hated the fact that people ripped him as much as they did. This guy continually went out there and handled top-pairing minutes and tough matchups. 
He did it at points when the Oilers didn’t have anyone else remotely capable of handling that role. 
Did he make the odd boneheaded play? Sure, but find me a defenseman that doesn’t. Were the numbers ugly at points? Sometimes, but he was often playing top-pairing minutes with a partner who is hardly a top-four defenseman.
There was hardly any support for Nurse on that blueline. Ekholm wasn’t in the picture, Bouchard was still figuring out the NHL game, Cody Ceci was playing minutes he had no business playing (I think he’s a fine defenseman, just not a top-pairing guy), and Brett Kulak was trying his best to give this team top-four minutes.
It was Nurse and a bunch of players playing over their heads. He drew criticism because of his contract, but I didn’t think his play warranted the hate that he got.
Now, the Oilers blueliner is back to looking like a legit top-pairing defenseman and yet, some don’t want to give him the love he deserves.
With Nurse on the ice this season, the Oilers are out-scoring the opposition 21-19 at 5v5. While that may seem a little underwhelming, when you look at his numbers since Kris Knoblauch and Paul Coffey slid behind the bench, you start to see just how dominant he’s been.
Since Knoblauch’s first game as Head Coach, Darnell Nurse has only been on the ice for six goals against at 5v5 and the Oilers have scored 11 times. A much better ratio than earlier in the season.
In short form: under Woodcroft/Manson, the Oilers were outscored 13-10 at 5v5 with Nurse on the ice. Under Knoblauch/Coffey, they have outscored the other team 11-6 at 5v5. Quite the jump.
Play is also being consistently pushed in the right direction with him on the ice. Nurse is giving the Oilers competent top-pairing level play both at 5v5 and on the penalty kill. He’s been immensely valuable.
At this point, if you hear anyone at Rogers Place yelling or complaining about Nurse, they’re simply uninformed and looking to yell for the sake of hearing their own voice.

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