The Edmonton Oilers are second in the National Hockey League with 119 goals (all stats current as of games completed on March 27), behind only the defending Stanley Cup champion and Presidents’ Trophy frontrunning Tampa Bay Lightning.
A large part of that has to do with the Oilers’ dynamic duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the best one-two punch at centre that the team — if not the entire league — has seen since Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier tag-teamed in Edmonton more than three decades ago.
McDavid (62 points in 35 games) is running away with the league scoring race, while Draisiatl (53 points in 35 games) is the runaway runner-up, and the 3.29 points between them is the highest average for two teammates since 1995-96 when Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux combined to put up 4.12 points per game with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But a large part of Edmonton’s explosive offense this season is its lesser-publicized dynamic duo, the top defense pairing of Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie. The former is tied with Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens for the NHL lead in goals by a defenseman (11), the latter is tied with Lightning star Victor Hedman for most assists by a blueliner (27), and both are producing at a rate not seen in Edmonton since the Oilers ‘80s heyday.
The Doctor Is in the Zone
In his sixth season as a full-time NHLer, Nurse has emerged as one of the league’s better all-around defenseman, as evidenced with his plus-22 rating, third in the NHL behind only Montreal rearguard Joel Edmundson (plus-24) and Draisaitl (plus-23).
The 26-year-old’s progress is particularly pronounced on the scoresheet. Nurse needed just 35 games to set a new personal high for goals, scoring his 11th of the season in Edmonton’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. His previous best was 10 goals, coming in 82 games in 2018-19.
Nurse is averaging personal highs in minutes (25:37, fourth in the NHL) and shots (2.54), and his shooting percentage (12.4) is roughly three times higher than his career rate coming into the season.
“(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.”
The Benefits of Barrie
When he came to Edmonton in the offseason as a free agent, signing a one-year deal for a relative bargain $3.75 million, Barrie was something of a reclamation project. After several years putting up big numbers while playing for the Colorado Avalanche, Barrie performed below lofty expectations with the Maple Leafs in 2019-20. The Oilers, who have long pursued a puck-moving defenceman of Barrie’s ilk, were more than happy to provide the nine-year NHL vet with a proving ground.
A little more than two and a half months into the 2020-21 season, it’s safe to call this marriage of convenience mutually beneficial: Barrie already has the same number of goals (five) through 35 games as he did in twice as many appearances (70 games) last season, and he’s on pace for 43 assists in a shortened 56-game season, which would be only two less than his career best of 45, which he set while playing 78 games two seasons ago. This is all despite starting the season with just two points in eight games as Barrie adjusted to his new squad.
Barrie’s presence on Edmonton’s power play, first in the Scotia North Division with a 26.8 percent success rate, can’t be understated — he’s logged nearly 135 minutes on the power play, which ranks top five among blueliners in the NHL, and his 12 power-play assists are already tied for the fifth most in a season by an Oilers defenseman since 2002-03. The 29-year-old creates chances by putting pucks on net; his 100 shots rank second in the league among defencemen.
Through 35 games, Nurse is averaging 0.314 goals, while Barrie is averaging .771 assists, which are both the most prolific single-season figures recorded by any Oilers defencemen other than Hall-of-Famer Paul Coffey.
Individually, Nurse’s and Barrie’s stats are outstanding, but to be occurring simultaneously is historic. Barrie and Nurse are both on an 82-game pace for 60 points, a threshold reached only seven times by an Oilers blueliner, and only once in in the same season (Coffey and Risto Siltanen in 1981-82).
There has been much consternation in Oil Country about what to do with the impending unrestricted free agent Barrie. Should the Oilers re-sign him? Will he want to re-sign? If the answer to either is no, should the Oilers trade Barrie before the approaching to at least get an asset for him?
What’s not debatable is that the Oilers will only get so far this spring without significant contributions from their No. 1 pair on the back end. So, for however long it lasts — whether that’s a couple more months or several seasons — Oilers fans should enjoy it. This only happens once every 40 years or so.
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.