As the summer draws to a close and training camp is set to open in the coming weeks Edmonton Oilers fans are once again firing up the Darnell Nurse debate.
Sadly for those who are optimistic about the stud 7th overall pick in the 2013 cracking into the 2014-15 opening night roster there is a reality check that is to be had.
This is no dig at the Oilers top prospect along with Leon Draisaitl but setting realistic expectations for the organization and the fans of Oil Country.
Nurse impressed in his first NHL camp (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)
We All Know Nurse’s Credentials.
As stated a former 7th overall pick in 2013, he has a lineage of being the son of former CFL wide receiver Richard Nurse and the nephew of former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. He’s won a bronze medal with Team Canada at the U-17 and U-18 level and most importantly emerged as a leading defenseman in the OHL two seasons ago.
Darnell has all the tools necessary to be a star top-pairing defenseman for the Oilers.
With a 6’4 frame he has added some muscle to what was a 185lbs frame at last year’s training camp. The defenseman has a great wingspan and has improved his gap control this past season in the OHL to develop and round out his defensive coverage which was always seen as a weakness. We all know he can shoot, we all know he can play the powerplay and we all know he has a great set of eyes from the backend to make some stellar breakout passes to aid the Oilers transition game.
Going back to his draft year, Craig MacTavish hinted at drafting Nurse for several months before the pick was officially made in an effort to address an under equipped and under performing defense corp. Since then Nurse’s stock has skyrocketed after a low point of being left off Team Canada for the 2014 World Junior Championships last season. The 19-year-old finished the 2013-14 season with 13 goals and 50 points in 65 games with the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Nurse rode out the campaign on a professional tryout with the Oilers AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City and had one assist in 4 games.
It Just Doesn’t Make Sense For 2014-15
Unfortunately it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever for the Oilers to try to shove “The Next Big Thing” into their opening night defense group for 2014-15.
First and foremost the Oilers struggled mightily with infusing too much youthful exuberance into their roster and not addressing the struggles of the kids. Now the kids didn’t all start 2013-14 on opening night, but they were forced in because management didn’t go out and build the defense the right way which was adding veteran talent to the backend as stopgaps. Nick Schultz, Anton Belov, Corey Potter and Jeff Petry all took steps backwards. Schultz and Potter were eventually injured and then later traded to open up more permanent spots for Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin with Marincin emerging as a legit NHL defenseman. Klefbom struggled at times and is more deserving of a full season in the AHL under Todd Nelson.
The Oilers can’t throw another kid on defense that is still learning the game.
This season the Oilers have added that NHL calibre second-pairing defensive defenseman that can give the kids some time to develop including Nurse. Mark Fayne will play the biggest impact on the Oilers defense as he’ll be thrust into a shut-down role. Nikita Nikitin on the other hand will be a likely fixture on the third-pairing. Keith Aulie will likely be the Oilers 7th defenseman rotating in and out of the lineup for much of the season.
The returning defenseman from last year’s defense include Jeff Petry, Andrew Ference, Martin Marincin and the recently re-signed Justin Schultz. Klefbom will likely be the Oilers first call-up from OKC.
That puts Nurse 9th on the Oilers depth chart in terms of defenseman jockeying for position. You simply can’t make the mistake of overcomplicating the situation with the Oilers having brought in three addition defenseman at the NHL level and having two prospects that are further along in their learning curve than Nurse is at the moment.
Need more proof? Here is a breakdown of the Oilers defense entering training camp from “Lowetide” Allan Mitchell;
- D *Mark Fayne—Big minutes in tough situations all year long.
- D *Jeff Petry—In his walk year, could be his last with Edmonton.
- D *Martin Marincin—He’s the kid in the lead, how long does it last?
- D *Nikita Nikitin—Big offseason pickup will get chances in all three disciplines.
- D *Andrew Ference—Team captain has more veterans helping this season.
- D *Justin Schultz—Ready to take ‘lightning rod D’ mantle when Petry leaves.
- D *Keith Aulie—Eakins’ Marlies continue to arrive each summer.
- D Oscar Klefbom—I think he’s close, may pass Marincin this season.
- D Darnell Nurse—Has the potential to leap all of the other youngsters this fall.
- D Brandon Davidson—Keeps getting mentioned in good ways.
- D Brad Hunt—Chaos incorporated, his skill set is somewhat unique on this roster.
- D David Musil—Unlikely to be in the NHL picture this season, but progressing.
- D Martin Gernat—Range of skills makes him a legit prospect.
- D Dillon Simpson—Fascinating player to follow this season. Could move up quickly.
- D Jordan Oesterle—I’m unsure he’s ahead of anyone on the 50-man list.
- D Graeme Craig—WHL grad looking for pro sorties. AHL contract.
- D CJ Ludwig—Intriguing NCAA grad, may have more potential than Oesterle. AHL contract.
- D Ben Betker—Big man with mobility. NHL teams love these blue.
- D William Lagesson—Newest hire on D, rugged kid with ability.
- * indicates projected to make Oilers opening night roster
— Edmonton Journal (@EJ_Oilers) July 21, 2014
Return To OHL Is Best Plan of Action
Nurse needs to play.
Outside of Nurse playing his initial nine games to not burn a contract year there is little to no reason to have him in the NHL this coming season at all.
If some fans had it their way and Nurse made the roster for the duration of the season he would likely not play more than what Marincin (19:09 TOI) and Klefbom (15:47 TOI) averaged last season, not because of talent but because the minutes aren’t there this season.
Fayne averaged 18:18 TOI last season for the New Jersey Devils and will likely see his role grow with the Oilers and Nikitin averaged 17:06 TOI with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. In total the Oilers lost 32:03 TOI with the loss of Mark Fraser and Philip Larsen who were regulars. Even by demoting Klefbom there isn’t nearly enough minutes available to give Nurse meaningful minutes at the NHL level. He’d be in the 10-15 minutes per game mark if he was lucky with limited PP and almost no PK time.
It also doesn’t make a lick of sense to have Nurse sitting in the press box eating chicken fingers and popcorn as the 7th defenseman. He needs to be playing to continue his development.
So why not have him stay with the Greyhounds and play the top-pairing averaging 20-25 minutes per game where he will be playing best on best competition and be on both top PP and PK special teams?
Another bonus is the fact Nurse will have a wrong righted by Hockey Canada and is almost guaranteed to crack the 2015 Team Canada roster for the World Junior Championships along with fellow Oilers prospect Greg Chase. Hockey Canada made a huge error last season and after the dismal finish won’t make the same mistake two years in a row, especially when Nurse is now considered one of the best defenseman in junior hockey.
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) August 5, 2014
The Future Is Still Bright!
With a shadow of a doubt Darnell Nurse is on the rise. The Oilers will hurt his development bringing him up too early because it generally takes defenseman longer to adjust to the NHL game because there is more to learn on defense than there is on forward which is why the same can’t be said for Leon Draisaitl.
Draisaitl will slide into the second-line center position because there is no depth at center, whereas on defense there IS depth now (Oiler fans you can gasp at that proclaimation now). It might not be great depth but it’s deeper than it has been in almost a decade and that’s a start in the right direction.
This defense will eventually become led by Nurse and he’ll be the heart-and-soul of the Oilers defensive game all in due time along with Schultz, Marincin, Klefbom and to a lesser extent Dillon Simpson and possibly Martin Gernat. The Oilers have a great group coming up and need not squander it by rushing a 19-year-old on the verge of having the biggest season of his career in junior hockey.