On Wednesday (June 9), the National Hockey League is expected to announce a trio of finalists for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. Voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, the award is presented annually to “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”
Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the Norris in 2018, and New York Rangers’ sophomore sensation Adam Fox both seem locks to receive nominations. But that third spot is more up in the air.
Yes, Nurse is a longshot. Truthfully, it would be a surprise bordering on shock if he is named a Norris finalist. Although the 26-year-old enjoyed a breakout season, arguably one of the top two or three from an Oilers rearguard since perennial Norris Trophy contender Paul Coffey was traded by Edmonton to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1987, it may not be quite enough to earn enough votes amongst a stacked field of more than half a dozen worthy candidates.
Competition notwithstanding, Nurse put up Norris-calibre numbers this season, and if someone wanted to make a case for the 26-year-old’s all-around ability, there’s data to back it up:
Despite a shortened season, Nurse set a career-high with 16 goals, to rank second in the NHL among defenceman (Jakob Chychrun of the Arizona Coyotes was tops with 18), while Nurse’s 15 even-strength goals were the most among all D-men. Nurse scored at a rate of 0.286 goals per game, the highest average in Oilers history by any defenceman not named Coffey. Had this been a full 82-game season, Nurse was on pace to become just the fourth Oilers defenceman (along with Coffey, Charlie Huddy, and Sheldon Souray) to score 20 goals in one season. He also added 20 assists.
Nurse ranked fourth in the NHL among defenceman with 154 shots on goal. He scored on 10.4% of shots, the second-highest shooting percentage for rearguards league-wide, just behind Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers, who recorded a shooting percentage of 10.9% (11 goals on 101 shots).
With a rating of plus-27, Nurse ranked fifth in the NHL among defenceman and was tied for seventh overall. His plus-minus was the best by an Edmonton blueliner since three-time Stanley Cup champion Craig Muni registered a plus-43 in 1988-89.
Nurse registered 117 hits, 15th most among NHL D-men, and was 18th among all players with 100 blocked shots. The six-foot-four, 220-pounder was one of only seven players in the entire league to be credited with at least 100 hits and 100 blocks.
A tireless workhorse, Nurse suited up for all 56 Oilers contests, the third time in the last four seasons that he did not miss a single game, joining Tom Gilbert as the only two Oilers defenceman since the 1980s to play every game in a season three times.
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The Hamilton, Ont. product logged 1,435 minutes, third-most in the NHL behind only San Jose Sharks veteran Brent Burns and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings (both former Norris Trophy recipients). Nobody in the NHL played more minutes at even-strength than Nurse, who was on the ice for a total of 1,223:09 in 5-on-5, 4-on-4, and 3-on-3 situations. Additionally, Nurse and his defensive partner Tyson Barrie were the only two blueliners in the NHL to average one minute per shift.
And while Norris Trophy votes are cast at the end of the regular season so as not to be influenced by post-season performance, Nurse demonstrated his superhuman stamina during Edmonton’s triple-OT loss to the Winnipeg Jets in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs, playing 62:07 (over 58% of the game) to record the third-highest time on ice in NHL history. Then he rushed back to Edmonton to be with his fiancé for the birth of their first child and still managed to make his team’s end-of-season media availability that afternoon — Which harkens those qualities of Nurse that can’t be expressed in numerical form.
Nurse sets an example for teammates to follow in his conduct both at and away from the rink. His maturity is reflected in a newfound calmness and patience in his game. He’s an essential figure in Edmonton’s leadership group, whose dedication, commitment, professionalism, and reliability are why he’s served so well as an Oilers alternate captain the last two seasons. His performance on the ice is why Nurse is now regarded as a legit No. 1 defenceman. And all are seasons why he, at the very least, belongs in the Norris Trophy conversation.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.