Imagine you are the general manager of a professional hockey team. You have a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman who is turning just 25 years old. He’s played the equivalent of just over three seasons in the NHL. Every season he plays, he improves his offensive output and minutes played. His most recent season also saw him pace his defensive teammates with 41 points. It’s the most points a defenseman has posted for this organization since the 2008-09 season.
He stands up for his teammates, he hits, fights, and can play in all situations. He was drafted in 2013 and has developed within an organization that is notorious for struggling with prospect development. Now imagine wanting to trade this player. Is there a deal that would make sense for the Edmonton Oilers in this situation? Let’s take a look at what a trade involving Darnell Nurse might look like, and analyze whether or not it would make sense for Edmonton in the long run.
Trade History Involving Young Defensemen
To get an idea of what a return a player like Nurse could fetch for the Oilers, we need to take a look at some prior trade history involving young defensemen with less than 300 NHL games under their belts at the time of being traded. The first trade that comes to mind is Seth Jones.
Jones was traded from the Nashville Predators to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 6, 2016 in exchange for centerman Ryan Johansen. At the time of the trade, Jones was 21 years old and had played 199 NHL games, posting 15 goals, 48 assists and 63 points, or 0.32 points-per-game (P/G). Nurse currently has 88 points in 279 games played, also 0.32 P/G.
I think it’s also important to note here that out of Nurse’s 88 career points, 67 have come in his past 164 games played, or 0.40 P/G. His on-ice offensive production has increased every season, and there’s nothing that makes me think he will be slowing down anytime soon.
Johansen had posted seasons of 63 and 71 points before he was dealt to the Predators, including a 33-goal campaign in 2013-14. Johansen was 23 when he was dealt, and is currently Nashville’s #1 centerman. Jones is the Blue Jackets’ number one defenseman and has developed into a potential future Norris Trophy candidate.
The next trade I’m going to look at is Justin Schultz on Feb. 27, 2016. At the time of this trade, Schultz was 25 and had played 248 games, posting 28 goals, 73 assists and 101 points (0.41 P/G) for the Oilers. Schultz, a second-round pick in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks, became a highly sought-after college free agent in 2012 before signing with the Oilers.
He was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round pick in 2016. Though offensively gifted, Schultz fell out of favor in Edmonton for his perceived weakness while defending in his own end. The Oilers sold low on Schultz, who then proceeded to help the Penguins win two consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
That third-rounder for the Oilers was used to select defenseman Markus Niemelainen. Not to sound too disrespectful here, but I think it’s safe to say that Niemelainen won’t have much of an NHL impact in his career. The Oilers are a team that has been trying obtain or develop a right-shooting power-play specialist for years it seems, yet they let one go for next to nothing. This trade truly sums up the saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” I hope Edmonton thinks long and hard before thinking about trading another young defenseman for a draft pick.
On Nov. 30, 2017 Sami Vatanen was traded from the Anaheim Ducks, along with a conditional third-round pick to the New Jersey Devils for center Adam Henrique, forward Joseph Blandisi, and a third-rounder. At the time of the trade, Vatanen was 26 years old and had played 280 NHL games. He scored 33 goals, 93 assists and 126 points (0.45 P/G) for the Ducks before getting dealt. Henrique was coming off seasons of 30 and 20 goals, respectfully. With the Devils having just drafted center Nico Hischier first-overall, they felt it was time to move on from Henrique and shore up their blue line. Henrique is currently Anaheim’s number two center behind an aging Ryan Getzlaf.
Vatanen has battled injuries the past two seasons in New Jersey, but he was a key piece in helping the Devils reach the postseason in 2018. He has also been able to continue close to his scoring pace from his Anaheim days despite his injury troubles. If he stays healthy, he’s a great acquisition for New Jersey and will be instrumental in their future success.
We all knew this was going to be brought up. For Oilers fans, I’m sorry I have to put you through this again. On June 29, 2016 the Devils traded 22 year-old defensive defenseman Adam Larsson to the Oilers for scoring winger Taylor Hall. The trade has been infamously meme’d across social media as “one for one.” At the time of this trade, Larsson had played 274 games for the Devils, scoring nine goals and adding 69 assists for 77 points (0.28 P/G).
Hall was a first-overall pick in 2010 who had played 381 games for the Oilers registering 132 goals, 196 assists for 328 points. Before the trade, there was some speculation about Hall’s attitude and whether he was seen as a “cancer” within the locker-room. Whether any of that speculation was true, he was still extremely offensively gifted and Edmonton lost the trade immediately.
This isn’t a knock against Larsson. I really like his game. He’s physical, plays hard, and doesn’t try to do anything fancy. He’s steady in his own end and causes fits for attackers in front of the net. The main problem here is that Larsson was never projected to be a top-two defenseman that Edmonton had been trying to obtain over the years. On a good night he can play top-three minutes and kill penalties. Hall went on to have a career year in New Jersey in 2017-18, helping them reach the postseason and winning the Hart Trophy has the NHL’s MVP as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Why Would Edmonton Trade Nurse?
Now that we have some understanding of trades involving young defensemen, it’s time to address the question of why Edmonton might look to trade a player like Nurse. The first thing that comes to mind is that there is concern Nurse will be looking for a raise when his contract expires at the end of next season. He currently has a cap hit of $3.2 million. Nurse will be looking to take advantage of a raise in the ballpark of Esa Lindell’s recent contract with the Dallas Stars, where he signed for six years at a cap hit of $5.8 million. It’s clear Edmonton has had problems managing the salary cap recently, so I can see money being an issue for some fans. However, I don’t see it that way.
In 2021, Kris Russell and his cap hit of $4 million will be off the books. This money can be easily spent towards a deserved raise for Nurse without hurting the Oilers’ cap situation. Brandon Manning and his $2.25 million cap hit will be off the books at the end of this upcoming season, so again Edmonton will be saving money here.
And with how many young developing prospects Edmonton has on the blue line ready to make the leap to the NHL, Nurse and whatever contract he receives won’t look so bad. They already have Oscar Klefbom locked up for another four seasons on a team-friendly deal. Money is not an issue here. If the Oilers were to trade Nurse as a cap dump, it would be a huge mistake in my opinion.
The next reason Edmonton might want to trade Nurse is that despite a growing pool of prospects on the blue line ready to make the leap to the NHL, the Oilers don’t have that same situation with their forwards. Yes, they do have players who are close like Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, Cooper Marody, and Tyler Benson, but these forwards may still need time to develop in the AHL.
There is a situation where Edmonton tries to trade Nurse for a skilled winger who can jump right into top-six minutes with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Unfortunately, and with all due respect, despite the Devils being able to acquire Hall for Larsson, I don’t think Edmonton would find a team willing to trade a top-line scorer for Nurse.
The final reason Edmonton might look to trade Nurse is to hopefully include him in a package with Milan Lucic. It’s been speculated for a while now that Lucic wants out of Edmonton. As it stands right now, I would find it extremely unlikely any NHL team would want to take on a slowing Lucic and his $6 million cap hit for the next four years unless they get a piece like Nurse included.
Any deal involving Lucic would also likely require retained salary on Edmonton’s part. Any way you look at this situation, it would not be beneficial to the Oilers at all. If the only way to move Lucic was to include him in a trade with Nurse, I would rather just hold onto Lucic. As stated earlier, Nurse is too valuable to be used as a cap dump. The Oilers cannot let the mistakes of former GM Peter Chiarelli affect their ability to keep good young homegrown defenseman like Nurse.
Trading Nurse is a Lose-Lose Situation
After analyzing comparable trades involving young defenseman and playing out scenarios where Edmonton might look to move Nurse, I can safely say that trading him would be a huge mistake for the Oilers. NHL teams are constantly trying to draft and develop their best players (especially defensemen), and Edmonton has one right now. The Boston Bruins have developed Charlie McAvoy. The Stars have developed Lindell. The Tampa Bay Lightning have Hedman.
Take a look at any NHL team and look at who their number one or two defenseman is. Chances are, they have been drafted and developed by that same team. The Oilers have finally been able to draft and develop a big, fast, skilled, minute-eating defenseman who has made improvements in every area of his game in every season he has played. He may not be a number one guy right now, but I think he’s very close.
The question I posed at the beginning of the article was “does trading Nurse make sense for the Oilers?” Well, if you’re OK with risking a trade return of anything from a third-round draft pick to a top-line center, then maybe. The risk involved in making a deal work for Edmonton is far too high in my opinion. You don’t see other teams trading away their top defensemen very often, so why should Edmonton? Nurse is a great player who is only going to get better.
If Edmonton ever gets things sorted out and becomes a playoff contender again, Nurse is someone who I hope is still with the Oilers when that happens. As it stands right now, Nurse makes the team better every night he plays. Edmonton can’t afford to lose his presence on the back end.