When the Edmonton Oilers selected Darnell Nurse with the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the hope of the club was that Nurse would eventually evolve into a top-four defender and possibly a number one down the road.
Almost six years later, things aren’t looking nearly as rosy for Nurse’s future. Is he an NHL’er? Yes, he absolutely is. Is he a top-pairing defender? No, he absolutely is not. Is he a top-four defender? I truly believe, on a good team, he is a number four defender at best, a borderline option for top-four duty right now.
Nurse is still young, just 23, and has room to grow. That being said, this player’s potential has far exceeded his actual production in the NHL, and the time may soon be arriving that other teams realize what this player is.
Nurse has been thrust into top-pairing duty thanks to the injury to Oscar Klefbom suffered six games ago. With Andrej Sekera also on the mend, the Oil had no choice but to turn to Nurse as Adam Larsson’s partner. It has been a complete and utter disaster.
The man that many, from management to media and fans alike, labelled as the future of Edmonton’s blue-line has failed his biggest test without question. Nurse struggles to transition the puck, isn’t great offensively and continues to have many lapses when it comes to defensive coverage.
Others have thought he’s had good stretches this season, mainly with Kris Russell. The possession metrics and goal metrics would disagree with that notion, along with the eye test. Nurse has struggled this season for the large part, and hasn’t been able to consistently hold down a top-four spot.
His inability to move up the depth chart and hold Klefbom’s spot down for even a short period of time has to be concerning for a team that is banking on Nurse to be a part of the core group moving forward. He hasn’t been on the same level as Klefbom or even Larsson this season, and when everyone is healthy I don’t think he is on Sekera’s level either.
Am I saying Nurse can’t play in this league? No, not at all. In fact, I think Nurse is a great third-pairing option in the NHL and I still believe when all is said and done that he will be a top-four defender in this league. That being said, his ceiling is significantly lower than many people thought and than the Oilers were banking on.
Let Me Give You The Numbers:
Nurse is averaging 23:09 time-on-ice per game this season, nearly three minutes higher than his career average. His possession numbers, which weren’t great to begin with, are down as well. His career average Corsi For is 48.8%, while this year he has posted a 47.4% mark.
Since moving up to Klefbom’s spot in the lineup, Nurse’s TOI has skyrocketed. Against Vancouver on Thursday, Nurse played 29:18. Prior to the Christmas break, he played 27:27 (12/22), 28:42 (12/18) and 27:50 (12/14 and 12/16). Nurse was not good in any of those games, especially late where he has looked absolutely gassed from the expanded role.
Nurse’s Corsi Rel this season is -3.7, the second worst mark of his career. His possession numbers were good both last year and in 2016-17 (50.7 and 50.9, respectively) but have begun to fall off the cliff this season. It’s concerning mainly because, although Nurse was good in the first half of last season, he’s struggled when his role gets increased.
If he’s your number four defender, you are likely fine. If you ask Nurse to do more than that? Well, history suggests that you are likely in trouble. He simply has not been able to handle bigger roles during the course of his NHL career. His 2018-19 season reminds me a lot of his 2015-16 campaign.
Coach Ken Hitchcock would agree, I think, with my sentiments. His comments about guys playing in higher roles reeks of discussing Nurse, even if the defender wasn’t called out by name here.
I think the Oilers would be wise to explore a trade of Nurse this summer. He’s on a pretty fair contract and is still a decent option in the right role when all is said and done. However, there seems to be a perception that Nurse and his ceiling are better than what he has shown. If the Oilers can get a scoring winger for him, I’d have absolutely no problem pulling the trigger on said deal and allowing Caleb Jones to be the third-pairing LHD behind Klefbom and Sekera next season.
Nurse reminds me of a better version of Luke Schenn. Schenn was a solid defender for a stretch, but was vastly overrated because of his intangibles and his draft status. To me, Nurse is an overrated player for those very same reasons and could net a solid return in the summer.
I know this piece will come off as harsh towards Nurse, but this isn’t his fault. He didn’t ask to be thrown into the fire as a top-pairing defender and he didn’t ask for all of the hype and for the Oilers to make him a core piece. He is what he is as a player, a decent NHL’er that is struggling to keep pace with an unfair ceiling.
The Oilers would be wise to explore a trade of this player before the rest of the league catches on to what many Oiler observers already are.