Oilers’ Need for a Defenceman Increased By Nurse’s Mistakes

The Edmonton Oilers were on their way to securing a win over the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 15, but with 25 seconds remaining in the game, Darnell Nurse’s pass was picked off by Vladimir Tarasenko, which caused a turnover and eventually led to the Blues’ forward tying the game with 19 seconds left on the clock. In hindsight, several Oilers were out of position and out-battled, by his turnover was the biggest hiccup on the play.

On that note, Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal summarized that Nurse made two mistakes in the game against the Blues that led to goals. He highlighted that the defenceman had a few other defensive lapses, with mistakes on five grade-A shots by the Blues (from “Player Grades: Oilers Lose Focus, Blow Lead, Drop Point in Late Collapse vs. Blues,” Edmonton Journal, 12/15/22).

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

Nurse was honest about his play after the game, saying, “We shouldn’t be in that position, I turn the puck over there with 18 seconds left or 20 seconds. It’s unacceptable on my part, I let my teammates down tonight.” In the next game against the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 17, he redeemed himself by opening the scoring in the first period, but later in the frame turned the puck over again, and then failed to cover Ducks’ forward Sam Carrick who proceeded to score.

Nurse is having an adequate campaign statistically with 17 points and a plus-10 plus/minus rating in 32 games this season, but he’s had a tough go as of late, making costly mistakes that have contributed to goals against. As such, it begs the question if the Oilers need to accelerate a trade to add another veteran defenceman to ease his workload.

Nurse Has Made Costly Mistakes as of Late

In addition to the mistakes against the Blues and Ducks, there have been additional blunders lately by Nurse that were significant. On Dec. 9, he retrieved the puck but made a soft pass behind his net which landed right on the stick of Joel Eriksson Ek, who circled in front and beat goaltender Stuart Skinner. Against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 3, Nurse shot the puck over the glass on the penalty kill, and was penalized for delay of game, when he had time to shoot it low and down the ice. Canadiens’ defenceman Arber Xhekaj scored on the ensuing 5-3 to tie the game.

Nurse has all the physical tools to be a dominant force from the backend, but he’s made too many gaffes lately. His $9.25 million cap hit kicked in this season and one has to wonder if he’s feeling the pressure to live up to the contract, as many fans, and even players around the NHL like the Wild’s Jordan Greenway, have criticized Nurse for his perceived subpar play while being one of the league’s highest-paid defencemen. At the same time, his costly mistakes could also be due to fatigue from playing too many minutes.

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Allan Mitchell “Lowetide” from TSN 1260 summarized Nurse’s workload, saying, “The problem Darnell Nurse has is that he’s on the ice half the game. So, when you’re on the ice half the game, there’s chances for more mistakes and he makes mistakes — he’s not a perfect defenceman. He’s not a shutdown guy, he’s not an offensive guy. He’s a two-way guy and that means he doesn’t shut down as well as Adam Larsson, and he doesn’t move the puck as well as Cale Makar.” That said, Nurse is 21st in the NHL in minutes played, but also sixth in the league in giveaways.

A Look Into Potential Trade Targets for the Oilers

If you looked at the Oilers’ roster before the season started, it was obvious that their biggest need was another left-shooting defenceman. Other than Nurse, the Oilers also have Brett Kulak on the left side, who was a third-pairing defenceman for most of his career before coming to Edmonton and can play higher in the lineup when needed, but it remains to be seen if he can be a full-time top-four blueliner. The Oilers also expected the young Philip Broberg to take the next step in his development this season, but he had a delay to the start of the 2022-23 campaign due to an injury. Since his return to the lineup, he’s been rather steady, yet he still makes rookie mistakes, such as a couple of unpressured turnovers against the Blues on Dec. 15. So, who’s available to help the Oilers’ blue line?

Most recently, hockey insider Pierre LeBrun discussed on “Insider Trading” that the Oilers are looking at two defencemen, Ducks’ blueliner, John Klingberg, and the Montreal Canadiens’ Joel Edmundson.

Klingberg has 11 points in 24 games this season and a $7 million cap hit, which expires at the end of this season. He has a unique no-trade clause that is 100 percent until Jan. 1 and then modified to allow him to list ten teams he would accept a trade to. In an article in The Athletic, LeBrun recently noted that the Oilers looked at him in the summer, and feel he’d be an upgrade over Tyson Barrie (from “LeBrun: Bo Horvat’s Trade Cost, Oilers’ Defense Targets, More NHL Rumblings” The Athletic, 12/16/22). However, many are questioning his ability to defend, as he has a minus-15 rating, and 35.81 high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) at 5-on-5 this season. Ironically though, Klingberg scored the game-winning goal for the Ducks in their 4-3 victory over the Oilers on Dec. 17.

John Klingberg Anaheim Ducks
John Klingberg, Anaheim Ducks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On the other hand, Edmundson is a shutdown-type blueliner with a Stanley Cup pedigree. His contract expires after the 2023-24 season and carries a cap hit of $3.5 million. He’s a 6-foot-2, 225-pound defenceman and plays an in-your-face physical brand of hockey; however, as The Hockey Writers’ Jim Parsons outlines, the likely ask for his services would be a first-round pick and there have been talks that the Canadiens have asked for prospect Xavier Bourgault. Parsons described that Edmundson offers something the Oilers are missing, but the cost of a first-round pick or Bourgault is rather steep.

However, the player I previously mentioned that seems like the perfect fit for the Oilers’ blue line is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Vladislav Gavrikov, who has a $2.8 million cap hit, which expires at the end of this season. He isn’t a big point producer, but he’s a 6-foot-3, 213-pound left-shooting shutdown defenceman who averages 22:55 a night and would help decrease Nurse’s minutes.

Vladislav Gavrikov Columbus Blue Jackets
Vladislav Gavrikov of the Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline recently noted that Gavrikov is sturdy, deeply underrated, and in the prime of his career and has been elevated to Columbus’ top pair since the season-ending injury to Zach Werenski (from “The Blue Jackets and Pending UFAs— Where Do Things Stand with These 3 Players?” The Athletic, 12/15/22).

Related: 3 Oilers’ Trade Targets on Struggling Teams

The Oilers would have to trade one of their $3 million wingers to make the money work, and if the Blue Jackets defender could be acquired for a second-round pick plus additional B-level prospects, it’s definitely worth considering. Also, it’s worth noting that Gavrikov’s agent is Dan Milstein, who also represents Evander Kane. General manager Ken Holland and Milstein are familiar with one another, and if Holland made a trade for Gavrikov, perhaps they could even make a team-friendly deal work, and extend the defenceman beyond this season.

With all the trade rumours circulating, there’s no questioning that the Oilers are looking to add another veteran defenceman that can help ease Nurse’s workload, the question is which player will it be?

Which defenceman do you feel the Oilers should acquire? Have your say in the comments below!

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