As we come to the late stages of the National Hockey League season, talks about what players are in line to win certain trophies and historic hardware arise. You have probably guessed from the title that I have someone picked out who should be considered for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. That player being Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers top defensemen. Before you set flame to your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, let’s see how Darnell’s season is going so far and who else he’s comparable to for this prestigious award.
Nurse’s Performance for the Oil
As I have stated before I believe Nurse to be the best D-man out there on the ice night-to-night for Edmonton. He’s a strong two-way player at even strength, with the ability to move the puck almost effortlessly around the ice while providing a physical presence whenever the team needs it. He does a great job defending Edmonton’s net while chewing up meaningful minutes for the Oil, as he is averaging 25:37 minutes a night. (from ‘Darnell Nurse exactly what doctor ordered for Edmonton Oilers‘, Edmonton Journal, 03/22/2021)
He has been the main go-to guy when the Oilers need to protect a frail lead during the later minutes of a contest. With only having to face-off against Canadian teams in the new NHL Scotia North Division, he’s having to lineup against the likes of Mitch Marner, Brock Boeser, Auston Matthews, Mark Scheifele and Elias Lindholm nightly, occasionally taking them out of the game entirely. He’s everything that the Oilers are wanting him to be for them as one of the top-end NHL defensemen.
Counting Up the Minutes
When taking a deeper look into his performance and production during his minutes on the ice, you start to see the real valve that he brings to the table. His 25:37 a night is the fourth-highest clicks on the clock amongst fellow defensemen around the league. If you were to look at the other defensemen who’ve averaged more ice-time this season, you’ll notice that their plus/minus isn’t anything to write home about, well positively that is.
2015-16 Norris Trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Los Angeles Kings, Drew Doughty is leading all D-man in ice-time this season with an average of 26:36 a night. His plus/minus rating is plus-1, that’s good when considering that his team is third last in the NHL Honda West Division with a record of 13-13-6 after 32 games played. You’d think that playing so many minutes on a struggling Kings team would keep him in the negative, but fortunately for Kings fans, he’s on the right side of that stat.
The second man up is Thomas Chabot for the Scotia North Division’s punching bag, the Ottawa Senators, who’s playing 26:32 a night. Here is the first real eyesore on the list as Chabot’s plus/minus is minus-15, which makes sense when playing on a team that’s struggling as much as the Senators have this season. Finally in third is veteran Brent Burns with 26:30 played on average for the San Jose Sharks with a plus/minus of minus-12. The Sharks are two points behind the Kings for the second last spot in the Honda West Division.
Nurse is the third-highest rated player in the entire league with a plus/minus of plus-22. That’s one spot lower than fellow Oiler Leon Draisaitl with plus-23. At the number one spot on the list is defensemen Joel Edmundson of the Montreal Canadians with plus-24, who doesn’t nearly average the same amount of playing time with 19:51 per game. I understand that the plus/minus rating isn’t a stat to live or die by, as there’s a lot more to take into consideration in the game of hockey. However, a common theme amongst the most heavily played D-man in the league is that they’re either ‘in the red’ or just hovering above it in the positive. All expect two of the top five defensemen to follow that narrative, the other player we’ll get to later.
Progression Every Season
Being the Oilers’ seventh overall selection from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, he’s had plenty of pressure put on him from fans. With every year that he’s laced them up for the Oil, he’s increased in his point production and other capabilities as a defenseman. The Hamilton-born defenseman recorded his highest career point totals during the 2018-19 season when he scored 10 goals and 41 points in a full 82 game season. This is the only time that he has broken-through the 40-point barrier. Last season he had only five goals and 28 assists for 33 points in the COVID-19-shortened 71-game season. If you thought that Nurse has reached his ceiling point-wise at the age of 26, then prepare to be pleasantly challenged as Nurse racks up the points.
Nurse is leading all defensemen with 12 goals through 36 games, a new career-best that’s continuing to climb. 11 of the markers happened at even-strength and one being the overtime winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, which was also his third career overtime goal. His shooting percentage of 12.4% is roughly three times higher than his career rate coming into the season. Don’t forget that Nurse is responsible for quarterbacking the second unit power play, which as a whole currently stands at fifth-best in the league operating at 26.5% and is tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for third with 30 power-play goals.
He’s on an 82-game pace for 60 points, a marker only reached seven times by an Oilers blueliner. Nurse has definitely emerged as one of the league’s better all-around defensemen by playing a ton of minutes for a Klefbom-less Oilers team while producing points at a career-high rate.
“(Offence) has always been a part of my game,” Nurse said in a media availability prior to the Oilers victory over the Winnipeg Jets on March 20. “As you get more comfortable within the league, I think you dip a little more into it. I’ve been trying to develop and get more comfortable and just make the plays that I see, and I feel this year I’ve been able to do it from the start. It’s been great playing with (Barrie). You see his offensive abilities and the way he’s able to create, so it’s been fun to read off him and get a second sense of where he is on the ice and see some of the plays he makes.”
Competitive in Comparison to Hedman
To add some context to my argument on behalf of Nurse, let’s compare his season so far to the player who is the favourite to this point to win the award, Victor Hedman. The Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting pretty being the best team in the Discover Central Division with 50 points on the season. That is largely due to the stunning play of Hedman who was last post seasons Conn Smythe winner.
Hedman is the player I eluded to earlier when discussing the two D-man in the top-five average ice time with the highest plus/minus rating. He is averaging 25:31 a game, which is 10 seconds less than Nurse. His plus/minus is plus-15, which is tied with three other players for the fifth-best plus/minus in the league amongst defensemen. The thing about Hedman’s plus-15 compared to Nurse’s plus-22 is that Hedman plays on a much stronger team. He quarterbacks the league’s second-rated power play with the Lightning’s one-man advantage percentage being 27.7% and is in second place with 31 power-play goals through 34 games played, two fewer games than the Oilers have played.
Hedman has to cover the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Patrick Kane, Aleksander Barkov, Sebastian Aho and Filip Forsberg. Players who aren’t the easiest to keep off the score sheet or kept them to low-point performances. The Norris can sometimes turn into a points trophy, if that is the case this year then the following should be taken into consideration.
Nurse has more goals than Hedman with 12 compared to six. Tyson Barrie, Nurse’s partner on defense, is tied with Hedman with 27 assists. Nurse has 15 of his own, which places him down at 26th in the league. Altogether Hedman is first amongst defensemen for points with 33 while Nurse has 27 which puts him at sixth. Nurse is tied with three other players for 15th in blocked shots with 64 on the season, while Hedman is tied with three other players for the 36th spot with 52. Nurse has more hits on the year with 82 which is good for 12th in the league. Hedman is trailing him by 46 hits with 36 so far this season, which ranks him at 91st in the league.
You can go back and forth all day comparing these two players who play on different teams in different divisions and must understand what they each bring to their respective teams. Other notable players in contention for the award this season are Cale Makar, Charlie McAvoy, Jeff Petry, Doughty on the aforementioned struggling Kings, John Carlson and Samuel Girard to name a few.
Other Factors in Play
What could end-up hurting Nurse is how the Oilers as a team end up finishing in their division. If Hedman has more points as a player than Nurse and the Lightning finish first in their division while the Oilers finish second or third, the decision of the voters might favor the player who played on a team with more points at the end of a season.
Another couple of other variables are the number of games played and the level of competition each team did and didn’t have to face within their division. For instance, the Nurse-Hedman comparison isn’t complete until they’ve played the same amount of games. The Oilers have played two more games than the Lightning to this point with also having to reschedule the three-game series against the Canadians that would have taken place last week. There haven’t been outer-divisional games between different squads. We haven’t seen the top dogs from one division play against a team that’s near or at the bottom of another. This will definitely be a cause for some fireworks come the postseason, depending on how it is set-up.
There hasn’t been anything officially released from the NHL regarding how nominations for the Norris Trophy will work this season. It would make the most sense that there’d be one player nominated from each division to receive this historic award. If that is the case then Darnell would receive my vote.
Nurse has proven himself to be an elite number one defenseman this season. He’s got more than just the stats to back that up and hang with other names that have been mentioned with the Norris. (from ‘TRAIKOS: Oilers’ Nurse shooting his way into the Norris Trophy conversation — and a spot on Canada’s Olympic roster‘, Toronto Sun, 03/29/2021) He’s been critical to the Oiler’s success in Klefbom’s absence, especially considering the offensive help that his partner Barrie provides whenever they’re on the ice. If there’s one thing that this season has taught me, it’s to expect the unexpected. From the realigning of the divisions to wondering how the playoff seeding would work. Keep a watchful eye out for the league to release a statement on how nominations for awards will be executed.
Teagan Giselbrecht is a writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers, Tampa Bay Lightning & Colorado Avalanche here at The Hockey Writers. He completed the Television Broadcasting and Journalism program at N.A.I.T. in 2019. During his first stint in Edmonton, he did Play-by-play for the NAIT Ooks Men’s and Women’s hockey teams. He also worked for the Oilers Entertainment Group, Oilers and Oil Kings respectfully. He has covered various sports at different levels including the NHL, CFL, WHL, AJHL and ACAC. Former television news and sports reporter for Prime Time Local News in Lloydminster, he moved back to Edmonton to pursue career development opportunities with 630 CHED. When he’s not writing for THW, you can find him playing sports and spending time with loved ones.