Darnell Nurse Injured: Can Duncan Keith Play Top-Pair Minutes for Oilers?

What the Edmonton Oilers were hoping wouldn’t happen just happened. News broke on Friday that defenseman Darnell Nurse is out with an injury and according to TSN 1260’s Jason Gregor, “Two sources have confirmed that Nurse will be out for a few weeks. It sounds like he will miss at least the remaining four games in November.”

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe

This leaves the Oilers in a real pickle. First, they don’t really have a player who can eat up the minutes Nurse was eating up on that left side. Second, the one player they might have (Duncan Keith) is the most polarizing defenseman in Edmonton since Kris Russell was paid $4 million per season on a four-year contract to “essentially block shots”.

What Will the Oilers Do?

Edmonton called up Philip Broberg in what was believed to be a corresponding move to speculation that Slater Koekkoek was injured. The Nurse news makes it obvious the Broberg call-up is related to something much bigger. It’s not expected that Broberg is going to simply jump into the Oilers lineup and play top-pair minutes.

Darnell Nurse Edmonton Oilers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At the same time, Keith was added to the Oilers roster as a player who would be much better served to play second-pair minutes. He’s been paired with Cody Ceci and the duo has been relatively stable, even if their respective numbers haven’t been ideal across all of the 16 games the Oilers have played.

The question now is, do the Oilers rush Broberg into this spot? Or, does head coach Dave Tippett bump up Keith and see if he can handle first-pair minutes for five or six games?

The Argument Against Bumping Keith Up

As Gregor points out, “losing Nurse is a major blow.” He adds, “He is averaging 20:20/game at 5×5, which is three minutes more than Duncan Keith who is second on the Oilers. Nurse is 5th in the NHL in 5×5 TOI/game and he is 5th in total TOI/game at 26:06.” At 38 years old, asking Keith to play three more minutes per game at 5×5 is a big ask.

Related: McDavid Hit on Pionk Offers Glimpse of What a Frustrated Star Looks Like

This isn’t factoring in that Nurse has been a workhorse on the league’s best penalty kill. If the Oilers are asking Keith to take Nurse’s minutes 5×5 and Nurse’s minutes when down a man, it’s fair to say Oilers fans are going to be in for some bumpy shifts, even if Keith is considered a fitness freak and will probably gladly take on the responsibility.

Remember, Nurse is 26 and seems to play better the more he’s on the ice. Keith is 38. Only Brent Burns (36) and Kris Letang (34) are at the top of the NHL’s stats column for time-on-ice when it comes to blueliners for veterans.

The Argument For Bumping Keith Up

There’s really no one else. Asking Broberg to take on the minutes is akin to everything the team used to do when they made a habit of rushing prospects into the NHL. This isn’t to say that Broberg wouldn’t love the opportunity, but it’s a ton of pressure to place on someone’s shoulders who hasn’t yet played a single NHL regular-season game.

Duncan Keith Blackhawks
Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks, Nov. 9, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Not to mention, if Koekkoek is actually hurt, that’s another man down and it leaves Russell as the only left-shot defenseman with experience outside of William Laggesson. Even Bakersfield Condors’ head coach Jay Woodcroft said Broberg is coming along but still prone to some mistakes. Do the Oilers really want Broberg making those mistakes at the NHL level and on the top pairing? Patience is key with this player.

The Long-Shot, Unlikely Option

Depending on how severe the injury is to Nurse (it’s not expected to be long-term), the Oilers could make a trade. There are a few left-shot defensemen that might be out there on the market, including Ben Chiarot of the Montreal Canadiens and Brayden McNabb of the Vegas Golden Knights.

Unfortunately, this means the Oilers buy at a time the other team knows GM Ken Holland is in panic mode and before those teams are really ready to move pieces. The asks will be outrageous.