Coming into this season, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse had his expectations raised unexpectedly. With the team’s No. 1 defenseman, Oscar Klefbom, being declared out for the season, someone on the back end needed to step up. Nurse, a former seventh-overall pick, wanted to be that guy, saying, “You lose a guy as big as Klef, every guy has to pick up a little extra. For me, playing the left side, a lot of that responsibility is going to fall on my shoulders. I look forward to the challenge.”
This season, Nurse has surpassed expectations, stepping up in more ways than one by continuing his strong defensive play, packing an offensive punch, and maintaining his fearlessness. Thanks to his consistent play, the Oilers are currently second place in the Scotia North Division. Nurse’s two-way game has vaulted himself into the conversation of who should be on Canada’s 2022 Olympic team. Although it’s early, he certainly deserves to have a spot on the team (right now), and if he keeps it up, he should find himself on a flight to Beijing in early 2022.
As mentioned before, Nurse was drafted seventh overall at the 2013 NHL Draft. Many people were taken aback by the pick at the time, thinking the Oilers were better off drafting a forward such as Valeri Nichushkin or a defenseman like Nikita Zadorov. Nurse was projected to be a second-pairing, shutdown defenseman, impressing scouts by using his size to straight-up outmuscle opponents. Tony MacDonald, head of the Carolina Hurricanes amateur scouting at the time, marveled at Nurse’s skating, saying, “He’s a big man and a tremendous skater.”
Another scout was impressed by Nurse’s offensive abilities: “Nurse can still be an explosive offensive player with strong defensive capabilities, but adds an element of toughness and fire to his game.” Teams liked that Nurse had already shown leadership ability at such a young age as he was an alternate captain for his junior team, the Soo Greyhounds.
Nurse’s next couple of seasons showed that he could add offense to his already defence-oriented game. While being the Greyhounds captain, he had 50 points in 64 games before bowing out in the second round of the playoffs to his future teammate, Connor McDavid. Nurse proceeded to head to the AHL to play in a seven-game stint with the Oklahoma City Barons. The following year, he made the Oilers’ opening-night roster and played two games with the club before management deemed that he was better off playing in Soo.
Nurse once again dominated the OHL, scoring at a torrid pace all season long and ended up with 33 points in 36 games. Once again, he could not lead his Greyhounds past McDavid’s Erie Otters and was knocked out in the third round. That year, Nurse was chosen to represent Team Canada at the World Junior Championships and was trusted by Coach Benoit Groulx to play on the top pairing. Team Canada marched all the way to a gold medal where Nurse was named one of the top three players on Team Canada.
Career in the NHL
Nurse finally broke into the NHL in the 2015-16 season. Under coach Todd McLellan, he was playing in a top-four role for a young Oilers squad on a pairing with veteran Andrej Sekera. Nurse quickly earned the respect of his teammates by always being quick to stand up for them. He finished the season with four fights, including a bout with Milan Lucic.
Unfortunately, the Oilers’ top-pairing defenceman Klefbom got injured during the season, immediately propelling Nurse into a role that he was obviously not ready for. The Oilers had no defensive depth at the time and had no choice but to lean on Nurse to provide them with quality minutes. He ended up not being able to fulfill his role and finished the season averaging just 13 minutes a game and minus-13.
“Doc” took on a much more sheltered role in the 2016-17 season, playing on the third pairing with Matt Benning. The two Canadians provided the Oilers with safe, reliable minutes every game. Unfortunately, Nurse suffered ligament damage in his ankle, which ended his season. He returned during the 2017 Playoffs and had a very sound postseason, being dependable at even strength and on the penalty kill.
Nurse’s play in the playoffs encouraged Oilers management that he was ready to take on a more prominent role. With Sekera getting injured in the playoffs, Nurse had the chance to seize a top-four position on the Oilers’ blue line. That season, he played all 82 games and fired an impressive 194 shots. Nurse established himself as one of the go-to triggermen on the Oilers’ defence. Although his shooting mentality only accumulated to 26 points, the general thought was that Nurse’s career was back on track after having a rough NHL start.
Nurse finally broke out during his next two seasons, averaging 0.48 points per game over 153 games and getting the role of alternate captain. Most of those points came at even strength, showing his ability to score at 5-on-5. He and Klefbom formed a formidable left-handed side of the top four, as Dave Tippett could entrust either player in all situations. Nurse’s rugged style of play made it challenging for opponents to enter the zone without being flattened, while his slick, reliable puck movement made it easy for the Oilers to transition quickly out of the zone.
Nurse has elevated his game to a whole new level this season, stepping up in the absence of Klefbom and already setting new career highs through 42 games. He has turned into a trustworthy workhorse for Tippett, averaging over 25 minutes a game, good for fourth in the league. He has used his smart, accurate shot time and time again to capitalize on the Oilers’ chances and leads all defensemen with 13 goals.
He is currently sitting comfortably in 12th for defensemen points with 28. What makes Nurse’s offensive season even more impressive is that he only averages 1:26 minutes of power-play time per game! Of his 28 points, only five have come on the power play, further cementing his elite even-strength producer status.
What Are His Chances of Making the Team?
Although it will be hard to predict who will be on Team Canada by next year, Canada has a stable full of young, developing, two-way defensemen and Nurse is a part of that. He could team up with players such as Shea Theodore, Thomas Chabot, and Josh Morrissey to create a terrific left side of the Canadian defence corps. I’d love to see him be placed on a pairing with fellow 6-foot-4 defenseman Aaron Ekblad to create a menacing, reliable duo packed with tons of snarl. If Nurse can keep up his play into next year, with the help of Team Canada assistant general manager Ken Holland vouching for him, he and McDavid could be representing their home country at the Olympics.