The Oilers wanted a driver. They wanted someone who wasn’t going to sit idly by as the team continued to struggle. They wanted Darnell Nurse. We are a scant 12 games into his second NHL season as a 21-year-old young man, but we are seeing glimpses of what the Oilers thought they were getting when they drafted Sault Ste Marie’s athletic and competitive star blueliner.
There was never any doubt about Darnell Nurse’s passion. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He couldn’t hide how upset he was when the Oilers cut him from camp as a teenager. When he finally broke through to the NHL those passions showed themselves plenty in games. However, playing on a team that spent most its time getting pummeled on the score sheet, Nurse’s emotions lent themselves to sparking pummelings of a different kind.
No, there could not have been any question about his care factor. The questions about Darnell Nurse were about his game and whether he could grow into the upper limit of his draft day projections.
Unfortunately, the Oilers were extremely depleted last year. With Klefbom injured for the majority of the year the entire left side was forced to play above its head. His top two partners in his rookie season were Sekera and Schultz. He was a first time professional trying to survive on a lefty-lefty combination with Sekera taking on altogether too difficult competition or with the only player with less of a clue about how to defend than him.
With an overall on-ice shot attempt percentage of 45.5% in 2015-2016 he was dead last among Oiler defenders who played at least 50 minutes. Fourteen men played at least that much, including Andrew Ference on his last legs, and still opponents had most control with Darnell on the ice. Even knowing he was thrown to the wolves, this was concerning. Equally concerning was that only Mark Fayne had a lower Scoring Chance percentage (47.1% as recorded by NaturalStatTrick) among Edmonton’s regular defenders a year ago.
Now, in the first quarter of his second NHL season, Darnell Nurse is performing significantly better by these same metrics. At the same time, he’s passing the eye-test more than he was a year ago. He closes gaps very well. He retrieves pucks more efficiently. He’s even more comfortable skating with the puck, which I believe will be his biggest asset in the future.
Today, he is second on the Oiler blueline in shot attempt percentage at 50.3%. He’s one of just three defenders above 50%. He is tops among Oiler defenders in Scoring Chance percentage with 52.6%. He’s also playing lower in the order than ever before, on the third pairing, a spot where his responsibilities can be managed — finally..
Defensemen don’t always turn into the player scouts dream they will become on draft day. This is true of many prospects, but defensemen seem tougher to judge than forwards (and nobody should waste top picks on goaltenders). Even those “five tool players” aren’t always capable of bringing it all together. There should be a book written about why Jack Johnson isn’t better than he is because he has everything you want in a hockey player.
Darnell Nurse is one of those young players that has all the tools you want a young defender to have. He can skate, he’s big, he’s mean, he can shoot, he fights, and he’s been a leader on every team he’s played for. I don’t know what his high end is if he can put it all together. All I can say for sure is that if he had started this season off dragging at the rear of the defense in every major statistical category there would be a lot of concern about whether he was ever going to come close to his potential.
It has only been 12 games. He’s played in just 83 over his entire NHL career. Throw in another 20 AHL games (playoff and regular season) and that’s a scant 103 in professional hockey. There’s a long way to go for Edmonton’s former seventh overall pick. I’m just happy to say he’s really looking and performing like he’s taken a step forward. How many more steps forward he can take will be up to him.