Now that Ken Holland has Zack Kassian locked up to a four-year contract extension, attention will turn to impending restricted free agent Darnell Nurse.
Coming off of his two-year bridge deal with just two more years of team control before he can become an unrestricted free agent, Nurse will be seeking a big payday this off-season. According to Jim Matheson, Nurse’s camp is using the seven-year deal worth $8 million annually Jacob Trouba signed with the New York Rangers last summer as a comparable.
Matheson also notes that the Oilers would likely be using Josh Morrissey, who signed an eight-year deal worth $6,250,000 annually back in September, as Nurse’s comparable. Both Nurse and Morrissey were first-round picks in 2013, broke into the league at the same time, and signed two-year bridge contracts at the end of their entry-level deals, so in that regard, the comparison makes perfect sense.
There’s no doubt that the Oilers believe that Nurse is a key part of their team moving forward. Now the question becomes whether or not he’s done enough to warrant being paid like a top-pairing defender.
Remember, this is just standard negotiating. Nurse’s agent wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t go into the negotiation with the top possible comparable for his client. It doesn’t mean that $8 million is the be-all, end-all figure or the hill they’re going to die on.
Nurse has had a solid season anchoring a top-four role alongside rookie defender Ethan Bear. His offence is down a bit from last season mostly because Oscar Klefbom has been healthy and Nurse hasn’t played on the power-play as much as he did in 2018-19. He has 22 points through 52 games, putting him on pace to score 34 points over an 82-game season.
For the sake of comparison, Trouba put up 50 points for the Jets last season before signing his contract in New York. Trouba also only had one year left of team control before he could hit the open market as a UFA. Morrissey, the better comparable, had 31 points in 59 games last season, good for a 43-point pace. Of course, there’s more to being an NHL defender than putting up points, but it’s hard to argue that Nurse deserves substantially more money than Morrissey earned.
Nurse’s next contract is a difficult conundrum. He’s 25 years old, so while there’s certainly some room left to grow, you should have a pretty good idea of who he is as a player at this point.
He shows plenty of flashes of brilliance. He’s a great skater, he plays physically, and he can be tremendously effective when he carries the puck. There seems to be a lot of untapped offence in his game that makes him look like he could be a true, two-way top-pairing defenceman. But Nurse is also prone to major gaffes. He makes some bad reads in the defensive zone, his decision making can be questionable, and his puck movement is incredibly hit and miss.
At this point, Nurse hasn’t shown enough consistency to be paid like a true No. 1 defenceman. He doesn’t have the offence or puck-moving skills to fit the top-pairing profile nor does he have an elite shutdown game. He’s more of a jack-of-all-trades, good at plenty of things but lacking an elite quality to his game.
And that’s completely fine. Nurse is a good player and you would rather have him on your team that not. He should be a part of the Oilers moving forward. But he isn’t a top-pairing defender so he shouldn’t be paid as such. Negotiating Nurse down to a deal similar to what Morrissey was paid is going to be an important job for Holland this summer.