Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse will be under a lot of scrutiny this season. His eight-year, $74 million contract with an average annual value of (AAV) $9.25 million has kicked in, making him the seventh highest-paid defenseman in the NHL for the 2022-23 campaign.
Nurse is an important player to his Stanley Cup-contending Oilers team, and he’s paid handsomely for it as well. When he’s on top of his game, he’s ferocious, nasty, and can jump up in the play and produce points. On the other hand, when emotions take over, he’s been known to be undisciplined, take unnecessary penalties, or go for the big hit, which takes him out of the play and can lead to costly goals against.
Most recently, he took an undisciplined penalty against the Vancouver Canucks in the season opener, which put his team at a disadvantage and the Canucks capitalized on their power play chance. Fortunately, for the Oilers, they pulled off the come-from-behind win. Nurse is expected to be a leader from the blue line, and moving forward he’ll need to find the right mix of being physical, and disciplined while doing so.
Nurse Has Made Undisciplined Plays That Have Been Costly
Some important components of Nurse’s game are his aggression and physicality, but what’s seen as a strength, can also present as a weakness if there isn’t a good balance. Over his career, there have been moments where his over-aggressiveness has put his team at a disadvantage. A recent incident occurred in last season’s playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings.
In Game 5 of the first round, Nurse was suspended for one game for head-butting Kings’ forward Philip Danault. It was a critical moment at the end of the second period, and the Oilers eventually lost the game. That undisciplined play caused his team to be shorthanded heading into Game 6, with arguably their best defenseman suspended and out of the lineup. Fortunately for the Oilers, they gutted out a win and eventually won the series.
In the preseason against the Calgary Flames, Nurse was baited into fighting a career American Hockey League (AHL) player, Mitch McLain, not once, but twice in the third period. The Flames’ forward was running around, and Nurse, being the good teammate he is, took exception and dropped the gloves a couple of times. Many who watch hockey enjoy a good fight, but at the same time, there needs to be situational awareness and a level of discipline. This wasn’t a Matthew Tkachuk-caliber forward that Nurse was taking to the penalty box with him. No, this was a player that hadn’t played a regular-season NHL game in his career. The trade-off did not seem to be worth it.
McLain was doing his job and baiting the seventh-highest-paid NHL defenseman into a fight, and Nurse didn’t keep his emotions in check and took the bait. His toughness and willingness to stick up for his Oilers’ teammates should be commended, but in the process, he risked injury fighting a minor league player. Granted, it was only preseason, but hopefully, this doesn’t turn into a trend in the regular season as well.
Fast forward to the season opener against the Canucks last Wednesday. The Oilers were down by two in the first period, and in the tail end of the frame, Evander Kane took a run at defenseman Kyle Burroughs, followed by a big hit by Nurse, which earned him an interference penalty.
Sportsnet’s Mark Spector posted on Twitter after the play, saying, “And Darnell Nurse takes an obvious, needless penalty at the 20:00 mark, rather than just going to the room. Not veteran leadership, it is fair to say.” As it turns out, Nurse was fined $5,000 for interference on the play, which is the maximum allowable under the CBA. The fine against him is minor given his annual salary, but his decision to put his team down a man resulted in a goal against when Andrei Kuzmenko buried his first NHL goal in the opening minutes of the second period.
Nurse Is a Very Good Defenseman When He’s Focused
It’s good to spark your team with a bit of physicality when things aren’t going your team’s way, but there’s also a time and a place when it doesn’t put your team at a disadvantage. That balance is something that Nurse will have to learn and implement in his game as he enters his ninth NHL season.
When the 6-foot-4 blueliner is at the top of his game, he’s extremely effective. Case in point was his second half of the game against the Canucks last Wednesday, as he played a sound defensive game once he focused and settled in. After taking the penalty in the first period, he jumped up in the play and scored the game-tying goal, shorthanded. He blocked four shots, broke up a two-on-one chance, assisted on the insurance goal, and finished with a plus/minus of plus-1 on the night.
Head coach Jay Woodcroft spoke after the game, alluding to the Jekyll and Hyde in Nurse’s play, saying, “I think the penalty kill was a big story, in the game, we had to do it way too much tonight because of some things that were self-inflicted.” He added, “And even though we gave up one, on the kill, I thought that shorthanded goal by Darnell, was a real momentum changer for us and it was a big part of the game.”
Overall, on a night when Connor McDavid’s hattrick was the talk of the town in a 5-3 Oilers win, Nurse’s big second half contributed to it in a massive way as well. For the Oilers, they’ll need that “second-half of the game” Nurse this season.
Nurse Should Be Evaluated on His Ability to Defend
There’s no denying with Nurse’s big contract kicking in this season that he’s going to take some heat from the Oilers’ fanbase. It seems like for every good play he does, the occasional blunder will be the one that’s highlighted by the naysayers.
Nonetheless, TSN’s Ryan Rishaug talked about an outlook for the Oilers’ defender this season, saying, “The Oilers need Darnell Nurse to have the single best defensive year that he’s had as a member of the Oilers, that’s what they need from him. They need him to be a dominant, powerful, shutdown defenseman. If Darnell Nurse ends up with 27 points, it doesn’t matter. Other players can produce offense on this team. There are not a lot of other players who can do what Darnell Nurse can do defensively.”
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With Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard on the team, Nurse won’t see a lot of power play time this season. As much as there should be an expectation of a $9.25 million defenseman to produce a lot of points, realistically, most of his points will have to come at 5-on-5. Where he should be evaluated, and where he will earn his salary, is on his ability to defend, transport the puck, and shut down the other team’s top lines.
Related: Oilers’ Top End Skill Prevails in Win Over Canucks
The Oilers are in contention for a Stanley Cup this season, and some of their success hinges on Nurse’s dominant play from the back end, and he’ll need to do so while maintaining a certain degree of discipline.