The cat is out of the bag. Harshly insinuated in the past, now caught on a live mic courtesy of Jordan Greenway’s benchside banter, Darnell Nurse’s contract is increasingly being seen as over inflated, or inefficient, given his on ice contributions.
Amidst the dawning of this long-since signed extension kicking in, are the strict constraints of both the stagnated salary cap and Nurse’s health. Nurse tore his hip flexor heading into the playoffs of last season, the spring of 2022, ultimately playing through the injury as the Edmonton Oilers found their way into the Conference Finals.
With surgery after the Oilers’ elimination, Nurse was able to return for the start of training camp, a mere five months apart. Though there never seemed to be much concern raised as to whether or not Nurse would have been ready for such an immediate return to action, one has to wonder how far from ideal the situation is.
Losing a summer’s worth of training is certainly a blow of its own, but often regaining the full power and control of the affected area can take some time beyond a return to “full health”. Even a small dip in performance, say in terms of explosiveness or agility, might have a cascading effect on a players game as a whole. Less time means quicker decisions, less space, and less options. In the end, fatigue makes cowards of us all, as in a giveaway might turn into an extended shift, more mistakes, eventually perhaps to the egregious errors fans grown frustrated with Nurse’s play might emphasize. In some sense it is no wonder at all that Nurse might not seem at his sharpest early into this season.
How much worse has Nurse been this season, if at all? How much better might we expect him to be if these struggles are at all injury related? Can Nurse live up to his contract, at least enough for the Oilers to have a title shot? Let’s dive into some specifics that might help us untangle these ponderings.
A history of hip injuries
There might be more instances of torn hip flexors, but far more common is Femoroacetabular impingement (FAI). Essentially, the stresses that hockey players place on their hips can create bone spurs near the hip socket. The treatments have been growing in popularity, so to speak, with more and more players undergoing the corrective bone resurfacing surgery.
In a medical study (which can be read here: https://academic.oup.com/jhps/article/6/3/234/5536657), athletes that had surgery for FAI were found to see a return to their previous performance, but saw their careers shortened by a year, on average.
The other common injury in NHL hips is a torn labrum, an issue that several top NHLers have had in recent years. There is a relationship between FAI and more injuries, groin strains and torn labrums among them. It can be difficult for those on the outside looking in, especially those without a medical degree, to understand where one starts and the other ends. For the purpose of this highly unscientific article we won’t distinguish between them.
After out-dueling Nail Yakupov for the 2013 Calder trophy, Jonathan Huberdeau suffered a hip injury. A key piece to the Florida Panthers, even in his earliest years, Huberdeau’s game seemed to fall off as the Panthers themselves sputtered. Huberdeau’s sophomore season was one to forget, and it took him until the next year to rediscover the promising trajectory of his career. By Huberdeau’s own admission the hip was an issue, as was the uncertainty that built up upon his return. Though he was healthy enough to play, it took some time before he was operating at full strength.
Pekka Rinne was one of the most exciting goalies to watch of his era, a huge frame, aggressive mindset, and spectacular flexibility combining into a force in the crease. Near the tail end of his career he required surgery for a hip injury, and unfortunately had some setbacks on his road to recovery with subsequent infections. Though he eventually did author some strong results afterwards, including a Vezina trophy win, it is accurate to say that it was a significant chapter in his career.
Not quite as positive a story, but Jamie Benn got this surgery following his Art Ross trophy win in 2015. Benn has never played at such a lofty level since, though some of that might be due to the natural progression of his career. Benn is still an effective player and a key contributor to the Dallas Stars, yet his salary is more reflective of his past play than his current quality.
Brad Marchand got both hips done this offseason, and he and the Bruins have gotten off to a fantastic start to the season. Though Marchand returned roughly eight games into the season, he is producing well.
Famously, Nikita Kucherov had a torn labrum, returning for a playoff run that saw the Tampa Bay Lightning become champions. Much criticism was made of the Lightning’s maneuvering of the injury and salary cap at the time. Kucherov, naturally, returned to his elite form.
From the same 2020 bubble playoff season, Tyler Seguin played through his hip labrum injury on the Stars run to the Cup Final. Seguin missed all but three games in the 2020–21 season, before a disappointing 2021–22 season that saw him post the worst scoring rates since his rookie year in 2010–11. Seguin has rebounded so far this season, but might serve as the most similar comparison to Nurse in this respect, with each playing through their injuries to suit up for the playoffs, despite being visibly hampered.
Moreover, we have seen a resurgence from former Calgary Flames centre Sean Monahan after back to back years undergoing hip surgeries. Although Monahan has an extensive injury history, it’s clear that the hip issues limited Monahan’s game enough for his time in Calgary to come to an end; the Flames attaching a draft pick to rid themselves of his contract. Monahan has had a strong start to the year, moving better than he has in some time, in part to his hip injuries coming around.
Even with such a controlled operation as FAI corrective surgery, there are clearly ramifications to hip injuries for NHL players. There is likely some merit in thinking that more violent injuries, such as Nurse’s torn hip flexor, might have harsher, or at least different, ill effects.
The best news is that come playoff time this season it will have been a year since Nurse suffered his injury. Though the common prognosis for explosiveness returning, at least by armchair doctors, is often somewhere between one and two years post injury, where the instances of Monahan, Huberdeau, and Seguin seem to support such a claim. Nurse might well be reaching his former level at a most pivotal time, just as his injury hobbled him through the playoff run last season.
Nurse’s impact on the Oilers
By a combination of scrutiny related to his contract, the Oilers middling defensive performance so far, as well as some uneven play of his own, there is a growing storm of criticism among the cynics of Oil Country.
Some things we can know or measure about the situation. First and foremost, given how the initial injury was reported and how little Nurse has seemed willing to discuss the matter, we know that Nurse would not be the one to lament or even admit an injury reduced on ice effectiveness. This is a fairly understandable and common position for athletes to take, if nothing else.
The other hard reality is that the Oilers have not been able to lighten the load placed on Nurse, or improve his deployment so far this year. Still logging by far the most minutes of the blueline, Nurse is expected to do so with Cody Ceci as his partner. Ceci has been a great fit, a pleasantly effective UFA signing holding up in a deployment that might be described as ambitious or optimistic for a team with contending hopes.
|Season||Corsi %||xG%||Relative xG%||Goals/Game||Points/Game|
|2022–23 (thru 30 GP)||50||49.8||-0.2||0.13||0.53|
One thing we can see from these stats is that Nurse has never been a dominant possession player. Peaking around the signing of his extension, though, Nurse used to be a positive relative to his teammates in this area. Though many would cite his playing so often with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as a main reason for his success, it is pretty cynical to disregard the key role Nurse has played over the years. Throughout this stretch Nurse has been the focal point of the Oilers’ blueline, among the league’s leaders in icetime, at times being asked to will the group as a whole towards average.
The truth is that Nurse’s defensive impacts, by measure of xG, have not been elite, suggesting he might be miscast as a contending team’s top defensive option. Having a defenceman or two to truly push Nurse in this area would make the group better as a whole, yet players of such an ilk are scarcely acquired.
It is, however, reasonable to believe that Nurse’s numbers in this area will improve as the season goes, perhaps back to their levels relative to his teammates. If the performance is at all due to injury, time will see more functionality as he heals. Hip injuries themselves are common among hockey players, and the way that they are being treated across the NHL has changed and evolved a few times over the past 20 years.
Where Nurse is living up to his historical prowess is in production. Despite virtually no power play time, Nurse has been an effective and consistent offensive player, though perhaps not as proficient as teammates Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard in this area.
The cap hit is another issue when it comes to Nurse
Though the performance has held up nicely as a whole, the scrutiny of Nurse’s cap hit amplifies any shortcomings. Perhaps, more than injury, production, or level of play, this is the metric that allows us to understand the whatever frustrations that surround the player. Let’s compare Nurse to some of the other defencemen making more than a $9M cap hit.
|Player||Cap Hit (in $)|
No doubt some of the biggest names in the sport find themselves on this list, including Norris winners, past and future. Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty tower significantly above the rest, a breakaway grouping of their own. Surely none would argue that they are bargain deals at this point, yet both have continued a strong level of play. Roman Josi is similarly accomplished, but signed what might be a symbolic contract with his number 59 integrated into the cap hit number.
Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox, and in particular Cale Makar represent the top young defenders in the game, but all earned these contracts as RFAs, which are often less lucrative due to the player’s corresponding lack of negotiation leverage. Zach Werenski might well belong in such a group, but surely Columbus’ status as a rebuilding team, not to mention their historical challenges retaining top players might have afforded him more leverage.
Meanwhile, Dougie Hamilton stands out as the only true UFA signing, though he does hold up reasonably well against his peers here. Because he is tall, Hamilton is sometimes criticized for not being physical enough. Regardless he is a supremely talented offensive defenceman.
Finally, Seth Jones represents Oilers fans’ worst fears around the Nurse contract. At one point Jones and Werenski were among the top pairings in the league, yet Jones’ play seemed to take a nosedive since. Surely, a Chicago team without many redeeming qualities isn’t doing the player any favours.
Nurse’s prognosis with the team
Between the timing of Nurse’s extension (following the Jones sweepstakes and the subsequent resetting of the market), doing so after a career high in goals, and the fact that both Peter Chiarelli and Ken Holland signed Nurse to bridge deals. Committing to a long term, top dollar contract at either point would see Nurse far more appropriately compensated at this point.
Though Nurse may never win a Norris trophy, as might be expected from those in this stratosphere of pay, he is still the Oilers top option on the blueline. To take out frustrations about the Oilers cap management on Nurse is misguided. Of course there are better players who make less, but holding Nurse, or any player, up to such standards is a fool’s game.
With the cap on the rise in the future there will be some room for the Oilers to work with. Eight years, the term remaining on Nurse’s deal, is quite some time, but ultimately the fate of the Oilers begins with their ability to afford new contracts for McDavid and Draisaitl, both in terms of cap dollars, but also in terms of the team’s continued success. Nurse’s deal can become “more affordable” by handling contract situations, especially with young, important defencemen, with more tact than Nurse’s was.
Ultimately, the growing chorus of criticism being levied towards Nurse is expected, but to see a giveaway or a coverage mistake and merely point out his cap hit is an oversimplification lacking in any thoughtful critique.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire