Oilers Not Getting the Nurse They Need for the Playoff Stretch

The trade deadline has passed, and teams in playoff contention are battling for their playoff lives. Every single game and every single point are important right now. Every player should be firing on all cylinders down the playoff stretch.  

Edmonton Oilers’ defenceman Darnell Nurse seems to have hit a slump as the team pushes for a playoff spot. He hasn’t looked like his dominant self from one season ago, where he finished with 36 points in 56 games (0.64 points per game) and finished seventh in Norris Trophy votes. His dominance and points-per-game (0.47) have regressed this season, and he’s made several errors that have led to goals against in his last stretch of games.

Nurse’s Big Contract Is Set to Kick In Next Season

After his big season where he became the undisputed leader on the back end for the Oilers, the team signed him to an eight-year, $9.25 million in average annual value (AAV) contract last August that’s set to kick in next season. Many were surprised by the high figure, but at the time, that was the going rate that number one defensemen were signing for. The Columbus Blue Jackets inked Zach Werenski to a $9.5 million AAV, Seth Jones received the same from the Chicago Blackhawks and the New Jersey Devils gave Dougie Hamilton $9 million AAV.

Darnell Nurse OIlers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keep in mind, Nurse’s new deal doesn’t kick in until next season, but in comparison to Werenski (57-point pace), Jones (58-point pace), and Hamilton (49-point pace), Nurse’s 38-point pace in a full season, this season, is far lower than the comparables, who aren’t on playoff-bound teams.

The New Coaching Style Could Be Affecting Nurse’s Play

Currently, Nurse’s role is to be a minute-munching defenseman and to play in all scenarios, except for the man advantage. The Oilers tried him on the power play, earlier this month, but he wasn’t fluid with his decision-making and bobbled the puck. When he’s at his best, he plays a tough and nasty game, but this season he hasn’t looked as engaged. It’s almost as if he’s being told to stay away from the rough stuff, to stay out of the penalty box. In previous seasons, he hasn’t hesitated to mix it up and chirp other players, and at times, it’s led to fights. However, he doesn’t have any fighting majors this season.

Although his salary is $5.6 million this season, in the eyes of many Oilers’ fans, they see him as the $9 million dollar player now. At first glance, his stats aren’t bad. He has 28 points in 59 games with minimal power-play time, a plus-11 rating, 53.9 percent Corsi, and leads the team with 25:39 time on ice.

That said, he’s made questionable plays by the seeing-eye test that has directly turned into goals against and those errors have amplified in the last stretch of games. It’s important to remember; however, that when Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson took over behind the bench, it came with a different coaching style and system as well. It may be a factor why Nurse is second-guessing his decisions lately.

Previous associate coach Jim Playfair routinely asked his defensemen to go down and lay on the ice in an attempt to block the pass with their bodies. That can be effective at times, but a downfall is that it can completely take a defender out of the play and make them unable to defend at all, or a player can perfectly saucer pass the puck directly above the player sprawled onto the ice. It seems like new assistant coach, Manson, is asking his defenders to stay on their skates to defend the play in an effort to kick the previous bad habit.

Nurse Struggled Against the Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames

In the 5-3 loss against the Dallas Stars on March 22, the Oilers were up a goal with just over five minutes remaining in the first period. The Stars were skating through the neutral zone, and Nurse over committed to the right side of the ice. Roope Hintz saw the seam, took advantage of it at full flight, beat the defender with ease, and scored on a partial breakaway to tie the game.

Later in the game, Nurse’s defence partner Cody Ceci got caught up-ice, leaving Nurse as the lone Oiler to defend the two-on-one. A general rule of thumb in that scenario is for the defender to take the player without the puck and block the pass, but bad habits crept up once again and Nurses’ initial reaction was to lay down on the ice. Tyler Seguin danced around him, slid the puck over to Jason Robertson for the go-ahead goal. By choosing to lay on the ice, Nurse not only did not intervene with the puck carrier but also left the second man wide open.

Two games later in the 9-5 loss against the Calgary Flames, Nurse had one of his roughest games as an Oiler. Edmonton took an early lead, but a few minutes later, Nurse was overly aggressive at the blue line, got caught, and Elias Lindholm was sent in on a breakaway and scored. Derick Brassard isn’t off the hook on that play for not sticking to the backcheck, but at the same time Nurse — the leader on the blueline — needs to make a better read in that situation.

He was on for four goals against on the night. Hockey is a team sport and on every single goal against, each player on the ice is accountable. Whether it’s a bad pinch, a bad read, a lackadaisical backcheck, or a puck that should’ve been stopped. However, Nurse seems to take the heat because, on each of those goals against, he was the last line of defence aside from the goaltender. He’s the best defender on the team (and soon to be most expensive), and the goals may have been prevented with better decision-making.

Near the end of the game, Nurse seemed confused. He was unsure whether to be aggressive or hang back and he second-guessed his basic instincts. But hope isn’t lost if he regains his confidence. He needs to simplify his game — be physical, make a good first pass and read the play better. He and Ceci have not been a good pairing, with Ceci a team-worst minus-5 rating against the Flames. If Woodcroft continues to play them together, there needs to be better communication between the two.

Related: 5 Ugly Stats From Oilers’ 9-5 Loss to Flames

With nine even-strength goals against in the Oilers’ last game against the Flames, the team as a whole needed to be better in the main event on Hockey Night in Canada. Hopefully, the shellacking in a nationally televised game was a wake-up call for the team. Nurse, the team’s number one defenseman, will have to iron out the wrinkles in his game and regain his dominant form in order to keep the Oilers’ playoff dream alive.

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