To have expected Darnell Nurse to come out of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and immediately turn into a bonafide top-four defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers was never a realistic ask. After all, up until last season, this was an organization that had been void of impactful veteran blueliners for so long that there was zero chance of a kid coming in and knocking it out of the park on the backend.
Let’s not forget, Justin Schultz struggled to the point where, for his own sake, he needed to go to another NHL city to right the ship and get his career back on track. In fact, the argument could be made that Edmonton was arguably the worst spot in the league for a young defenceman to learn his trade and Nurse got to experience it first hand during his rookie year.
Expectations Were High
After beefing up their backend via trade, free agency, and health during the summer of 2016, the Oilers blue line was much improved in 2016-17 and thankfully the ask on the Hamilton native was scaled back for his sophomore campaign. After getting off to a solid start, injuries derailed his season and while he showed flashes of being the player we saw in junior, his performance was uneven at best.
Darnell Nurse goes to EDM. Still think he'll end up being the best dman from this draft
— Jeff Marek (@JeffMarek) June 30, 2013
That has all changed in 2017-18, as Nurse has been Todd McLellan’s best defender through the club’s first 30 plus games. It took a bit of time but he appears poised to become the defenceman most felt the organization was getting after using the seventh overall pick of the draft on him. Though still a polarizing figure of sorts among the fan base, the improvements in his game are acknowledged by all.
The days of continually chasing, be it the puck or opposing players, look to be a thing of the past. During Nurse’s first two years in the league, there was far too much chaos in his game and it cost the club on many a night. Be it the over-exuberance of a youngster trying to prove his worth, a player not yet comfortable in his NHL skin or a combination of the two, the shortcomings were rather apparent.
Nurse Has Had His Struggles
For whatever reason, that uncertainty is no longer present and because of it, Nurse has been a completely different player this season. The poor decisions both with and without the puck are few and far between, as are those moments when the kid simply looked overmatched and in over his head. Instead, we now see is a player who can effectively take on 20 plus minutes of ice on a nightly basis.
The transformation has been rather staggering and it could not have come at a better time from an organizational standpoint. With veteran Andrej Sekera still recovering from off-season surgery, Oscar Klefbom’s well-documented struggles and the trio of Matt Benning, Adam Larsson and Kris Russell having slipped in performance from a season ago, the emergence of Nurse has been a godsend for this coaching staff.
As tough as the first two and half months of their season has been, chances are things would be far worse without No. 25 pushing the envelope to the degree he has. Believe it or not, he has anchored the Oilers backend this season and for anyone to have even suggested that was a possibility following last season would have been laughable…and yet, here we are.
Unexpected Jump Forward
With all of 149 games under his belt, it seems as though Nurse is just starting to scratch the surface on what he might end up being at this level. Though the tag of No. 1 defenceman is one he is unlikely to ever hold, expecting him to develop in to a full-fledged No. 2 no longer feels like a stretch. Just so we’re clear, that is a legit No. 2 and not one because a team simply has no other real option. By no means is it a lock but the chance does exist.
— Paul Almeida (@AzorcanGlobal) December 13, 2017
For the first time in his NHL career, Nurse has shown the ability to transition the puck up ice and it has been a breath of fresh air. That confidence wasn’t present prior to this season but it was on display with regularity during his time with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Belief is a powerful thing and when it comes to Nurse, it has allowed him to unlock aspects of his game that had been absent at this level.
His skating had always been one of his greatest strengths in the OHL but we had yet to see it come to fruition in the NHL. That element alone has allowed Nurse to take massive strides in his overall development and as previously mentioned, led to him making far better decisions with the puck. The days of freely giving away possession no longer seem to be part of his thought process and he has become a much better player because of it.
Add that to a more controlled but still physical approach to defending and it has become next to impossible for him to go unnoticed. In the blink of an eye, he has morphed into a player one wants to see on the ice with far greater frequency, after being a potential liability for the better part of two seasons. It certainly has been quite the transformation and one Darnell Nurse deserves a ton of credit for.
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Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.