That Darnell Nurse needs defending after a game in which an injury-depleted Edmonton Oilers team walked away with a point against the best team in the NHL seems insane, yet here we are.
In a game few expected the Oilers to win, Edmonton took the Boston Bruins to overtime, losing the game but still earning a much-needed point in a tight Pacific Conference race. Edmonton maintained pace after the Vancouver Canucks were also only able to salvage a single point, and the Oilers still sit atop the Pacific with news Connor McDavid might be inching closer to a return. Yet, the focus of the conversation in Edmonton Thursday is that Nurse was terrible in an unfortunate loss.
A good portion of the fan base is suggesting Nurse isn’t worth the extension he just signed. Some are saying he’s the reason Edmonton wasn’t able to pull out the win Wednesday. Among the more idiotic of suggestions is that Nurse should be traded before the NHL Trade Deadline on February 24.
There are so many reasons this portion of the fan base is wrong, but below are just a couple of them:
That Loss Was Not Nurse’s Fault
Why fans are upset the Oilers lost (beyond any loss not being fun) is baffling. First, with six key pieces out of the lineup, the odds the Oilers were going to walk out with a victory were slim at best. This isn’t to argue Edmonton stood no chance, only that the odds were stacked against them and the team should be commended for putting up such a fight against a more healthy and offensively potent opponent. Edmonton held Boston to one goal in regulation. A key part of that was Nurses’ 29:58 played.
No doubt, Nurse made mistakes. Every player does. And, when you ask a defenseman to play almost half a hockey game, (especially when he’s not used to doing so) the odds mistakes will happen go up. To say Nurse was probably exhausted would be the understatement of the season. Still, Nurse made far more strong plays than he did weak ones. Among them was almost completely shutting down one of the best offensive players in the NHL in David Pastrnak, and on more than one occasion.
Key to remember here is that Nurse is not a No. 1 defenseman in the NHL. In fact, there are few actual No. 1’s — maybe less than 10 in total. Still, Nurse was thrust into the role due to key injuries and it’s absolutely unfair to expect a defenseman who isn’t projected or slotted as a No. 1 to, overnight, become one.
Somehow, fans have taken to hurling insults at a player who is being asked to do more than he’s capable of. Nurse will likely never complain about the responsibilities he’s being asked to take on, nor will he shy away from perhaps saying he could have been better on any given play, but what are fans watching? It’s far too easy to blast a player for one or two mistakes than it is to give credit where credit is due.
Nurse played over eight minutes of power play time, but he’s never really been a power play point man. He was asked to control zone entries on the man advantage, which isn’t his strength. He delivered more hits than anyone on the team. He played in all situations, including the penalty kill which ran at a 100-percent success rate on the night. And, he tried to get the win in OT. What else could Edmonton fans have asked for? Perfection? They should know better.
The Money Argument Makes No Sense
Part of the basis of many arguments Thursday is that Nurse is, all of a sudden, overpaid. Where this argument comes from is intriguing.
First, he’s not actually making big money yet. His new contract doesn’t kick in until next season. That being said, there’s an extremely good chance this experience being forced to play top-pair minutes will make him infinitely better. Second, even at the $5.6 million he’s slated to make over the next two seasons, he’s arguably a good-value deal.
Top-tier NHL defensemen typically make between $8-$10 million per season. Some fans are making the argument he asked for that figure in his latest negotiations which isn’t accurate. GM Ken Holland admitted as much when he said the $8 million figure was never brought up. And, even if it was, a comparable existed in the market which meant Nurse had the right to ask, which, again, he didn’t.
Furthermore, Nurse is 25. How many of today’s No. 1 defenseman were No. 1’s at that age? Arguably two (Victor Hedman and Drew Doughty).
And, acknowledging Nurse is not a No. 1, nor is he being paid like it, $5.6 is not unreasonable for a 2/3, which Nurse is and will be over the next season or two. In fact, if you look at what’s he making this season ($3.2 million) it’s hard to argue he’s not a steal based on where he should be deployed and has been up until Wednesday’s game against the Bruins. Critiquing someone for a situation beyond his control is not just unfair, it’s ignorant. If he’s asked to play the No. 1 role next season, that won’t be his fault, it will be the GM’s.
Should he develop into a No. 1 over time, that’s icing on the cake for the Oilers who probably aren’t projecting him to.
What Nurse Is
Nurse is a $3.2 million defenseman. He’s likely to be a $5.5 to $6 million d-man next season and the season after. Is he a $7 or $8 million player? Only time will tell, but the Oilers are so far from that conversation, to bring it up now is laughable.
Darnell Nurse is a player that wants to be in Edmonton, is willing to do anything to get his team into the playoffs, and wants to contribute in any way he’s asked, regardless of his skill set and ability to do so.
At the very least, fans and media ought to cut him some slack. Admittedly, he wasn’t perfect. That people are expecting him to be overnight is the real issue and it’s the kind of things players take mental note of and don’t forget.
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Jim Parsons is a freelance writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers and news and rumors posts here at The Hockey Writers.
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