When the Edmonton Oilers chose to give an eight-year, $74 million extension to Darnell Nurse nearly a year ago, everyone knew the deal would draw its fair share of critics. After all, the 2013 seventh overall pick, despite having a great 2020-21 season, was and continues to be prone to mental lapses that you don’t normally see from a number one defenceman. However, a number one defenceman is exactly what he is being paid to be, as his $9.5 million cap hit which will kick in this upcoming season makes him the seventh highest-paid blueliner in the entire league.
Since and even prior to his signing, Oilers fans have been very divided on Nurse. Some are in the belief that he is a true number one defenceman, one who is capable of playing a ton of minutes while also providing a ton of physicality. The ones who don’t believe he is a number one will point to the fact that his offensive numbers don’t compare to other top defencemen around the league, paired with the fact that a player with his salary should be running the top power play, an assignment which the Oilers have instead divided between Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard.
Many of the critics in regards to the Nurse deal come from the analytics community, as they believe his 16 goals in the shortened 2020-21 season were a result of puck luck more than anything else, and also point to his at times questionable defensive play. One of those critics is Dom Luszczyszyn, who is known for being an analytics guru with The Athletic. On Tuesday, he released an article going over the 10 worst contracts in the league and happened to have Nurse at number five. Let’s break down his reasoning (from ‘Dom Luszczyszyn: NHL’s 10 worst contracts, 2022 edition: Tyler Seguin, Seth Jones and others’, The Athletic, 07/26/22).
Nurse’s Inconsistencies Not Worthy of Contract
While Luszczyszyn gave credit to Nurse’s goal-scoring abilities from the back end, he is in the belief that his defensive play simply isn’t good enough to account for a $9.5 million cap hit. Because of that, Luszczyszyn’s model suggests the Oilers defenceman has a surplus value of -$35.1 million.
Luszczyszyn did go on to mention that during this past season, Nurse’s defensive game improved by a wide margin. However, with that improvement came a regression at the offensive end of the ice, as he went from 16 goals and 36 points in 56 outings to nine goals and 35 points in 71 this past season. That said, there is hope this deal can turn out better than the analytics community had originally thought.
As Luszczyszyn goes on to mention, Nurse, despite being 27, has a unique skill set that may still allow him to grow as a player. On top of that, he has made progression in each of the past two seasons, enough to suggest that while he may not ever live up to his contract, it may not be as bad as some had originally feared. Who knows, perhaps he is able to continue his trajectory and become a defenceman that everyone, including the analytics community, views as a true number one.
It is worth noting that players in their later twenties, and some even beyond that, can continue to grow their games. In each of the prior two seasons, Drew Doughty held the top spot on Luszczyszyn’s list for the worst contract in the league but had an incredibly strong 2021-22 season prior to being injured which left him off this year’s list entirely. Erik Karlsson was in a similar position last year but was also able to avoid this list thanks to his play in 2021-22.
What this is all meant to suggest is that, while Nurse’s contract is viewed rather poorly amongst many in the hockey community, he has a chance to change that perspective with strong play. While many of general manager Ken Holland’s decisions in the past have been questioned, you can’t deny the fact that he has a strong understanding of talent, and the fact he chose to hand out this contract shows how good of a player some believe he is capable of being.
Pressure Is on for Nurse
Aside from his playoff performance in which he was extremely banged up, the 2021-22 season was an overall solid one from Nurse. Yes, he can be prone to making mistakes at critical times, but that is bound to happen to nearly anybody taking on the monster minutes he does. That said, his solid play throughout 2021-22 came while he was on a much smaller $5.6 million cap hit.
This upcoming season will see Nurse begin his monstrous contract, which will come with high expectations and high pressure. Nurse is already a highly polarized player in Edmonton, and his many critics will be waiting to pounce any time he makes a mistake. If he is able to limit those mistakes and consistently play like the great defenceman he at times shows he can be, however, it should go a long way in silencing his detractors.
Colton Pankiw is a former Jr. A hockey player who now provides his knowledge of the game through writing. He’s been a very active and reliable source for nearly two years at The Hockey Writers. He is a credentialed writer for the Calgary Flames but also does features on other teams throughout the league. Other writing contributions include: Yahoo Sports, Las Vegas Chronicle, Oil On Whyte, and Markerzone.com. Colton is also a co-host of both Oilers Overtime and Flames Faceoff podcasts. Any interview requests or content info can be made through him on Twitter. Take a look at his work here.