There probably isn’t a non-Hawk we’ve watched closer than Darnell Nurse the past three years. We were smitten when seeing him on the ’15 Canadian junior team. He was big, he was fast, he played as if someone just broke into his car. He had skills, too. We have had too many trade proposals in our head to get him to Chicago, and far too many of them involved Brent Seabrook to think we aren’t completely delusional. Yes, we do think Peter Chiarelli is that stupid.
Still the first two years of his career, Nurse didn’t quite pop. There were flashes, but the blue line was the weakness of the Oilers and the glaring sign of “Under Repair.” But as we know, it takes young d-men some time to learn the NHL game. The benchmark is usually 200 games. It doesn’t always have to be that way.
It might just be that Nurse needed 103 games. Or maybe last year’s playoff run showed what he needs to do. Either way, the hellbeast we always envisioned might be on display now.
Nurse has simply killed the competition this year. He has a 54.8 CF%, which puts him nearly four percent above the team-rate. He has a 56% xGF%, which puts him 4.5 points over the team-rate. Most impressively, as Nurse has taken more and more minutes, he’s lowered the amount of attempts again, he’s seriously lowered the amount of shots against, and the big leap is in the types of chances he’s allowing to be aimed at Cam Talbot (because the Oilers backup goalie is an actual husky). Last year his xGA/60 was 2.65, and this year it’s 1.97. Nurse sees only about half his zone starts in the offensive end, and has been taking on the toughest competition for the Oilers all season.
Perhaps most impressive is that Nurse has done this while dragging around some real deep-frier-runoff as his partner. Most of his season has been with Adam Larsson, who is the very definition of “fine.” Away from Nurse, Larsson’s rates–Corsi, Fenwick, scoring-chances, whatever–all fall somewhere between 5-10%. Lately, Nurse has been skating with Russell, the most ear-flush partner you can get. All of Russell’s rates drop 10% or more when away from Nurse. He is the tonic for this team, and could set the blue line to be just fine for a while.
That will be something of a challenge for the Oilers, of course. Nurse’s entry-level deal is up after this year, and the Oilers only have somewhere between $15-$20 million, depending on what the cap does after this season, to sign somewhere around 10 players. That’s thanks to Run CMD’s extension and Draisaitl’s as well. It can be done, especially if they fill some gaps with other kids, but they’re going to have hold down Nurse’s new contract number.
Whatever Nurse wants, the Oilers shouldn’t hesitate. They have a real #1 d-man in the making here, and it doesn’t take much more. The Kings got two Cups because of Drew Doughty turning Jake Muzzin into something useful and like one other second pairing guy. The Penguins barely had a #1 d-man. The Lightning have Victor Hedman, two second pairing guys in Stralman and Sergachev, and that’s it. Perhaps no position makes more of a difference than having a true #1 d-man who can just punt the play up the ice every time he’s on the ice.
Nurse might not ever be a huge offensive contributor, but he doesn’t have to be if his feet and defense simply get the puck up to McDavid and Draisaitl quickly and let them go. He could rack up points the way Duncan Keith did, standing up at his line, creating turnovers there, and getting the puck up to his forwards ASAP. The Oilers have others who can score from there.
This season may have been a downer so far for EdMo. But this is the biggest highlight so far.
Game #37 Preview