Oilers’ Nurse Isn’t Perfect, But He’s Not Going Anywhere

There are consistently far too many overreactions and negativity towards Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers every time he does anything. Even if he doesn’t make a mistake, the media and fans are gunning for him because he makes $9.25 million per year.

Nurse may be overpaid, but that was the cost and the decision the Oilers have to live with. It’s not the player’s fault they earn possibly too much money, and it does nothing in the first year of an eight-year deal for Nurse to be the whipping boy in Edmonton. He is the team’s number-one defenceman and with the work and big minutes he logs, that isn’t changing right now. He is having a solid season and one game shouldn’t define the season (from ‘Darnell Nurse: Rancid game? Oh yeah. But having a decent season, even a good one,’ Edmonton Journal, Dec. 16, 2022).

Oilers Waited Too Long to Lock Up Nurse

The blunder made by the Oilers wasn’t extending Nurse to an eight-year, $9.25 million average annual value (AAV) contract, it was signing him to two bridge deals spanning four years. I actually don’t have a problem with the first bridge deal as I do with the second one, seeing as Nurse didn’t earn a long-term, high AAV deal out of his entry-level deal yet. At the time of signing his first bridge deal — a two-year, $3.2 million AAV contract — the Oilers’ defenceman had played 115 games and had eight goals and 21 points while averaging about 18:45 of ice time. Peter Chiarelli was the general manager who signed Nurse to that deal.

Ken Holland was in charge by the time Nurse needed a new contract. In those two seasons, he produced 16 goals, 67 points in the next 164 games while playing 23 minutes a night. That trajectory should’ve indicated what type of defenceman Nurse was going to be already at age 23. So, his second bridge deal was another two-year contract, this time with an AAV of $5.6 million. This is where Holland made the mistake.

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Around this time, the Oilers allocated some of the money that could have been put towards Nurse into giving Zack Kassian a four-year, $3.2 million AAV deal that has since not worked out at all. The Oilers wouldn’t have used all of that money on Nurse and realistically could have signed him for eight years at around $6.5-7 million in 2020. Instead, Nurse proved himself even more and the timing of Oscar Klefbom’s injury worked in favour of Nurse. He became the clear number-one defenceman and his ice time jumped up to 25:38. Scoring 16 goals in 56 games and finishing seventh in Norris Trophy voting only helped his case in his contract year.

The year waiting didn’t help the Oilers for another reason on top of that as well. At the time of signing his recent, massive extension, there were now comparable number-one defencemen also signing similar contracts. Between 2019 and 2021, there were a ton of number one defencemen locked up to long-term, high AAV deals. Here’s the list: Erik Karlsson ($11.5 million AAV), Zach Werenski ($9.58 million AAV), Charlie McAvoy ($9.5 million AAV), Adam Fox ($9.5 million AAV), Seth Jones ($9.5 million AAV), Roman Josi ($9.06 million AAV), Dougie Hamilton ($9 million AAV), Cale Makar ($9 million AAV), Alex Pietrangelo ($8.8 million AAV), Miro Heiskanen ($8.45 million AAV), Jacob Trouba ($8 million AAV), and Thomas Chabot ($8 million AAV).

How is Nurse going to look at that group and not pull similarities from his game? He plays top minutes, as much as any of these other players, and by finishing seventh in Norris voting in his contract year, is right to think he deserves as much. If he had been signed long-term two years prior, there were very few defencemen who had recently signed that he could compared to and he would’ve earned less than $8 million, a number both John Carlson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson were close to or at.

Nurse Makes Mistakes Like Everyone & Learns From Them

It is unacceptable that Nurse turned the puck over not once but twice leading to goals in the Oilers’ game against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 15, and he said as much in his post-game interview. The second turnover was worse as it was with 20 seconds left and allowed the Blues to tie the game shorthanded. When asked about the offside call in overtime, Nurse brought it back and took the blame.

“We should be in that position. I turned the puck over there with 20 seconds left and it’s unacceptable on my part and let my teammates down tonight. We shouldn’t be in that position to be in OT like that. I play too many important minutes like that to be making mistakes like that, and that’s on me.”

Every question Nurse was asked showed he doesn’t blame anyone or anything else for the error. But since turnovers happen, especially with the hand-eye that all NHL players have, Nurse should’ve been ready and covering the front of the net. Instead, it was his man who then scored the goal. As I said, turnovers happen, but he has to recover.

Darnell Nurse Edmonton Oilers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Not only have I seen far too many fans calling for a trade, but now for Nurse to be healthy scratched. There is no logical way that is happening. Nurse knows what he did and knows what he has to do to change it. The alternative in the lineup if Nurse were to be scratched is Ryan Murray, who has sat out more than 10 games in a row, or Markus Niemelainen, who has been playing in the American Hockey League and just got recalled. If neither can even get into game action with the Oilers, there’s no logical way either of them, or Brett Kulak or Philip Broberg, make up for that lost 25 minutes a night Nurse logs.

Nurse Is Not Being Traded Anytime Soon, if at All

With every mistake or mention of potential trade candidates, Nurse’s name is being brought up by fans. To address that, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He is in the first year of his eight-year, $9.25 million AAV contract that carries a full no-move clause until 2027-28. That is the next time any sort of trade involving Nurse should even enter anyone’s mind. By that time, the cap will have risen significantly and his deal will look alright.

There’s no way with what position the Oilers are in they ask Nurse if he would waive his no-move clause and be traded this early into his contract. Even if he did, no team is taking him without salary being retained and that doesn’t help the Oilers very much.

At this point, the Oilers are only trying to find ways to help their number-one defenceman get even better and reduce mistakes like the costly ones he’s made. He is a leader in the room and a key member to any success the Oilers have. They will either lose with him or win with him. I see the latter coming true.

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