Darnell Nurse, the name immediately brings confrontational feelings and an argumentative nature to Edmonton Oiler fans with both positive and negative connotations, especially since the long-term deal signing (eight years, $74M). For fans who view the deal pessimistically, the following descriptions generally anoint him as overrated, overpaid, and defensively unaware. Optimistic fans view him as retaining the former seventh overall potential, or a 1A to Mattias Ekholm’s 1B, and as an individual able to carry Edmonton’s defense corps.
Individual output (EDM defenceman ranking)
|All Situations||8||1 (2)||1 (1)||2 (2)||18 (2)||16 (1)||18 (1)||-1|
Nurse has had an interesting start to the season, though not necessarily making the same impact on the scoresheet as Evan Bouchard. Although Nurse does see power play time, he is not on the top unit, where Bouchard has thrived playing a quarterback role, seamlessly transitioning from Tyson Barrie. Overall, Nurse has recorded only two points in eight games, yet that is good enough for second among Edmonton defenceman, with him being very effective in his own end.
Defensively, Nurse has been the carrier of the defensive corps. Although there are moments of defensive lapses that critics quickly point out, no player is perfect in their own end, as defense is also a team responsibility. Individually, Nurse paces Edmonton in various categories. He leads by a narrow margin in hits and leads in shot blocks by eight over Bouchard.
Underlying metrics at even strength (EDM defenceman ranking)
|168||119||58.5% (2)||6||7||46.2% (4)||8.1||6.2||56.4% (5)||39||20||66.1% (3)|
Nurse’s underlying metrics support the strong season individual categories illustrate. To reiterate, his traits to provide two-way play are fully evident in puck possession (C%), shot quality (XG%), and high-danger chances (HDC%). Nurse ranks in the top four in three very important categories:
- Second in puck possession
- Fourth in shot quality control
- Third in being opportunistic and mitigating high-danger chances
Although these on-ice qualitative metrics may be impacted by playing alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, conversely, he is playing against the opponent’s elite players, which would work against him. Nurse’s second-ranked shot generation by Oiler’s defenceman supports his Corsi rating.
Additionally, Nurse’s HDC% indicates he generates offensive chances while suppressing opposition opportunities, strongly limiting opposition chances within the trapezoid, a fact made more important by Edmonton having the 32nd-ranked save percentage from high-danger areas.
Nurse has struggled, though, in actual production. By expected metrics, Nurse has generated offense with his on-ice play, accounting for eight expected goals and allowing six against. However, actual results do not depict a similar story, as he has been on the ice for six goals for and seven goals against. This indicates Nurse’s play should positively regress to a better degree as he should be +1 more actual goal and -1 less goal against, with a PDO (“puck-luck”) of .976, illustrating his unluckiness.
Defensive pairing at even strength (EDM defence pairing ranking)
|Ceci||106:16||59.6% (4)||62.5% (2)||59.5% (4)||59.8% (4)||70.0% (4)|
|Bouchard||19:27||62.5% (3)||0.0% (8)||47.3% (9)||47.1% (12)||50.0% (11)|
|Ekholm||7:49||59.1% (6)||100% (1)||39.8% (11)||66.7% (2)||50.0% (8)|
Regarding pairings, Nurse has played most of the time at even strength with Cody Ceci, another oft-criticized individual by fans and media alike. Although the defensive pairing is often thought of as subpar, it has been one of Edmonton’s stronger pairings in the small sample of the season to date. Placed in the top 4 of each category among 12 qualified Edmonton defensive pairings in puck possession, shot quality, actual on-ice goals, total scoring chances, and high-danger chance control.
Ceci’s play has been buoyed by a high PDO relative to Nurse, third highest on the team. Nurse and Ceci have played like a top pairing against high-quality competition, including ranking highly league-wide:
- Eighth in the NHL in total expected goals (XGF) and ninth in generating expected goals per 60 minutes (XG/60)
- 10th in the league as a pair in shot attempts for per 60 (SA/60)
- Rank 12th in puck possession (C%)
- 15th league-wide in shot quality control (XG%)
Many individuals thought the pairing of Nurse-Bouchard would translate into success based on historical play, but the desired results have been quite lacking. Both are offensively minded defencemen, as seen by their ability to outshoot opponents via generating high shot volumes, leading to above 50% Corsi. The pairing struggles, as Edmonton has not scored when they are on the ice together, G% of 0. When playing together, the two post less than 50% benchmark rates (indicating base control) in the categories of shot quality and scoring chance and are statistically indifferent in controlling high-danger chances.
Overall analysis on Nurse
Overall, individuals quickly point out Nurse’s mistakes and huge contract costs; I believe this is misplaced animosity toward an otherwise solid player who projects to stay in Edmonton’s top-four defense corps for many years. Hampered by buoyant contracts signed just before Nurse’s, such as Seth Jones, Edmonton negotiated a long-term deal post-Nurse’s best statistical season, which is not ideal for finding fair-market deals. Fans may not want to admit that Nurse is playing at valuable levels, but the conventional and underlying metrics indicate he is having a strong start to his season and new contract.
Ideally, as much as Edmonton fans don’t want to admit it, the Nurse-Ceci pairing is the Oilers’ top pairing. As reported above, they rank among the top 15 in several important statistical categories comparable with Sanderson-Chabot and Byram-Girard.
Coach Jay Woodcroft would be best suited to not playing Nurse and Bouchard as the two together this year have been sub-average in almost every metric, a fact attested to by the eye test. Additionally, Nurse has spent time with Ekholm, but that draws away from Ekholm’s strength of developing skill and instilling confidence when he is paired with youngsters like Bouchard and Philip Broberg.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire