Edmonton Oilers

A deeper look at Darnell Nurse’s progression with the Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers selected Darnell Nurse seventh overall in 2013. At the time he was projected to become a top pairing, left shot defencemen with offensive potential. Over the past nine years, that is exactly what Nurse has developed into with a highly debated max term contract keeping him in Edmonton.

Nurse is an excellent shut down defenceman with a chip on his shoulder attitude and 6’4″, 220 lbs frame to match. While not known for his offensive skill, Nurse is an excellent skater who can jump into the rush. He has a 0.41 point-per-game pace for his career; however he’s averaged 0.52 P/GP the last four years, and currently has a 0.61 P/GP rate as of Game 18.

There are times when his positioning and decisions with the puck leave fans scratching their head however there are no questions surrounding his dedication, talent, and leadership. An alternate captain on the ice and core member of the franchise in the room. Darnell Nurse is the Oilers #1 defenceman and will be for the foreseeable future, possibly his entire career.

The Oilers draft Nurse

I remember being excited for this draft and went in hoping they would select Nurse. Seth Jones would not be available at #7 and it looked like Edmonton was finally going to draft and develop a defenceman after drafting RW Nail Yakupov the year before. I would also like to mention that after watching one season of Justin Shultz as the Oilers #1 defenceman, I was ready to see a big nasty shut down defenceman develop in the system. Nurse was the first Oilers defenceman drafted in the first round since 1989. It was a noted shift in philosophy for the franchise as it became apparent that acquiring a top-pair defenceman via trade or free agency was difficult or impossible.

Nurse’s strengths

Darnell Nurse is an elite NHL shutdown defenceman who can impose his will and dominate in the defensive end. It is quite impressive and fun to watch him clear out in front of the net after a whistle. I remember during the 7–4 win against Nashville when Roman Josi was looking for a rebound in the crease, Nurse was aggressively clearing out Josi.

Josi got frustrated turned around to engage but he quickly smiled and laughed when he saw who it was. Then of course Nurse immediately confronted Alex Edler last week after he collided knee on knee with Conor McDavid. It has to be somewhat comforting to McDavid knowing that Nurse, a core member and physical beast is there to back him up when things get heated. Nurse is a tough customer and has 21 NHL fights including preseason. He had five fights in his first season; however, he drops the gloves two or three times a year now.

With all his defence and toughness noted, Nurse also has the ability to jump into the rush and create offence. He is a quick and smooth skater for a guy his size. Dave Tippett attempted to tap into Nurses’ offensive potential by giving him the green light however that offence came at the cost of poor positioning and opportunities for the opposition. Jay Woodcroft has been able to implement a defence-first system while still allowing Nurse to pick his spots jumping into the rush. Ultimately I believe that Woodcroft’s approach is the best way to utilize Nurse.

Nurse can play a ton of quality top pair minutes, and he’s currently averaging 23:28 this year. In the past he has played over 30 minutes and logged an incredible 62:07 minutes in the 3OT playoff loss to the Jets a couple of seasons ago. These are tough minutes against the NHL’s best forwards. Defending against world class talent on a nightly basis, logging heavy minutes and a career +42 while doing it is quite impressive.

Nurse’s weaknesses

Nurse has been criticized in the past for his poor decision making in the defensive zone. At times he can appear lost in coverage and is prone to making simple mistakes. Of course now with his highly scrutinized contract those errors are only magnified. I think you could make a case that every NHL defencemen has these weaknesses as a direct result of the talent they are playing against.

Every single NHL defencemen has been made to look like a pylon or made a brutal turnover that ended up in the back of their net. Every time it happens fans and media alike will criticize them. There appears to be this strange anomaly in hockey where defence is kind of just expected and it’s unacceptable to allow a turnover or goal against. Players are humans and humans make mistakes. Those mistakes occur more frequently when making the split second decisions that are required at the NHL level.

A look at Nurse’s contract history

The sticker shock on the max term extension was real. I—like everyone else—immediately thought they could have signed Nurse for less than $9M maybe even something that started with a “7.” Well, it started with a 7 all right: $74M USD over eight years for a $9.25M cap hit until the 2029–30 season.

Darnell Nurse is coming up on what will be his 10th season with the Oilers next year. His three-year entry-level contract slid to five years due to not playing 10 or more NHL games a couple of seasons. He then signed a two-year restricted free agent deal for a $3.2M cap hit in 2018. Then a two-year bridge deal for a $5.6M cap hit in 2020. And now he’s one of the highest paid defencemen in the league. While shocking at first, I also believe that his contract will be similar to Leon Draisaitl’s contract in that it will be more palatable as the salary cap goes up.

Highest paid defencemen

There are a lot of interesting contracts when you look at highest paid NHL defencemen. At the top of the list there’s Erik Karlsson‘s $11.5M cap, who is having a resurgence this year currently leading all defencemen with 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points. There was a time when Oilers fans dreamed about Karlsson on the roster. However after multiple injuries and four years left on his contract at age 32, that ship has sailed.

Drew Doughty is second among active players with an $11M cap. That salary goes for another four years after this season at which time Doughty will be 37. Not only can the Oilers not afford that cap hit, I’m confident there is no way Doughty would accept a trade to the Oilers. I would have said the same thing about Duncan Keith becoming an Oiler though, so I suppose there’s always a chance. I just don’t see it happening even though Holland loves adding aging defenceman to Cup-contending rosters.

Contract comparables to Nurse

Here are a couple of contracts that parallel Nurses. They are likely the exact contracts laid out on the table as Nurse negotiated his current deal.

Seth Jones: $9.5M cap until 2029–30, Age 28

Jones was selected three spots ahead of Nurse going fourth overall to Nashville in the 2013 NHL draft. At the time Jones was projected as a potential franchise right shot defenceman who can control the game with his two-way play. His offensive ability is what distinguished him from other defencemen. Jones has a big 6’4″, 213 lbs frame however it appears he does not have the same snarl that Darnell possesses.

That’s not to say that Jones is not a capable NHL defender however his defence was criticized in his final years with Columbus leading into free agency. Sound familiar? Jones is also a career -67 with zero NHL fights. I’m not sure how well those stats would sit with Oiler fans. Offence is where Jones shines, posting a career 0.51 P/GP and going 0.65 P/GP last season putting up 51 points in 78 games. Those 51 points come attached with a -37, however those stats can occur when you play top pairing minutes on the sixth worst team.

Jones signed a six-year RFA deal for a $5.4M cap hit with Columbus that ultimately lead to him being traded to Chicago when it became known that he would not re-sign with the Blue Jackets as an unrestricted free agent.

Dougie Hamilton: $9M cap until 2027–28, Age 29

Dougie Hamilton was drafted ninth overall by Boston in the 2011 NHL draft. He is an offensively gifted right shot defenceman with a 6’6″, 230 lbs frame who possesses a big shot, can quarterback a power play and produce offence. He is a career 0.56 P/GP and currently posting an eye popping 0.78 P/GP this year through 18 games with New Jersey.

He is also an equally impressive +62 for his career. Despite posting impressive offensive and defensive numbers Hamilton has been criticized for not using frame to physically engage opponents. At times Hamilton can lack consistency and in the past was not used on the penalty kill or overtime as coaches did not trust his defensive abilities.

Again, I’m not sure how well a big offensive defenceman who can be soft on defence would sit with Edmonton fans, especially considering the current cap hit. Worth noting is that for whatever reason or another Dougie Hamilton has been traded twice. There were rumours that Chiarelli (who drafted Hamilton) was active in an attempt to acquire Hamilton over his years with the Oilers but could never get a deal done.

Edmonton’s all-in on Nurse

I know there are plenty of other defencemen to compare to Nurse with however I am confident that Jones and Hamilton were the two contracts used as comparables when negotiating. I’m not sure I would trade Nurse for Jones or Hamilton today. While not as offensively gifted as either Jones or Hamilton, Nurse is a better defender who can put up complementary offence.

Any offence from Nurse should be considered the icing on the cake of a roster full of superstar forwards plus Barrie and Bouchard on the back end. Every NHL roster is better with Nurse on it than off it. If the Oilers traded Nurse not only would that leave an enormous hole to fill on defence but it could affect the chemistry of the room.

You have to admit that would send a mixed message: “We drafted and developed you into a core member of a contender but decided to trade you with hope that the grass is greener, all the best.”

If the Oilers actually traded Nurse I’d start to wonder if McDavid would finish his career as an Oiler? Nurse has served a long time for the Oilers and was drafted prior to Draisaitl and McDavid. All three have developed together and have undoubtedly created a bond. I would much rather have Nurse on the roster than have lost him to free agency. We should be happy that the Oilers are in a position to pay Nurse top pairing money comparable to other notable NHL defencemen. Not only has he earned it, he deserves it.


Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

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