Oilers’ Nurse is Struggling & Needs to Play Less Minutes

The Edmonton Oilers head back home to Alberta’s capital, down 2-0 in their series against the Colorado Avalanche. It was a scoreless first period in Game 2, but the Avalanche turned it up a notch scoring two goals in 15 seconds in the middle frame, which was the fifth-fastest in franchise history. Less than two minutes later, they added their third of the game.

If you’re an Oilers fan watching the game, you probably uttered Darnell Nurse’s name under your breath as Colorado’s goal horn rang after the three goals against. Nurse — who is battling an injury — was on the ice for the three-goal onslaught in the second period and made questionable plays on each.

Head coach Jay Woodcroft was asked about his assessment of Nurse’s play in the postgame interview, and he responded by saying, “He’s giving everything he has.” If his performance in the last two games against the Avalanche is truly “everything he has” while sporting a minus-5 in that span, he’s hurting his team more than helping at this time, and his minutes should be reduced because of it.

Analyzing Nurse’s Plays That Have Led to Goals Against

Before we analyze Nurse’s plays that have led to goals against, it’s important to reiterate the fact that the defenseman is battling an injury. Hockey insider, Frank Seravalli, reported on May 20th that he was dealing with a core muscle injury that might require offseason surgery to repair. That said, with the speed of the Avalanche, the effects of it are starting to get exposed.

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

Nurse looked a step behind in Game 1 when Nathan Mackinnon snuck behind him with ease a few minutes into the first period. The Avalanche forward created separation between him and Nurse and he beat goaltender Mike Smith.

Late in the first period, with minimal pressure against him, Nurse attempted to clear the puck out of the zone, which landed on the stick of Cale Makar. The Oilers’ defender wasn’t able to close the gap quickly enough, which resulted in the controversial goal that left the hockey world questioning whether or not they know what the offside rule actually is. Overall, in Game 1, he was on the ice for four goals against, and scoring chances were 8-20 with him on the ice.

As previously noted, Game 2 did not fare better for the 27-year-old defenseman. At 16:05 of the second period, Nurse received a pass in his own slot. He had two of his Oiler teammates open and ready for a pass, but he threw a backhand pass that was widely off the mark, missed Cody Ceci and bounced off the wall right onto Nazem Kadri’s stick. The Avalanche forward shot the puck and it was tipped home by Arturri Lehkonen. For those that were watching at home on the CBC feed, the camera immediately fixated on Nurse, presuming he was the main culprit in the play.

Only 15 seconds later, the puck was dumped into the Edmonton zone. Nurse chased it behind the net and instead of skating the puck out of danger, or making a hard pass around the boards, he lobbed a soft feed over to his partner Ceci, who was noticeably under pressure from an Avalanche forward. The puck was turned over, and Nurse tied up an opposing forward, taking himself completely out of the play. The puck ended up on defenseman Josh Manson’s stick and he wired the puck past Smith.

Only two minutes later, after a poorly timed pinch by Evan Bouchard, Nurse was the lone defender back to defend a 2-on-1. A general rule of thumb in that situation is that the defenseman should take away the pass; yet, Nurse did not take away the pass or impede the potential shooter. Instead, Kadri saucered the puck over to Mikko Rantanen and he put it by a sprawling Smith. As a result, Nurse finished the night with a minus-3 rating in over 20 minutes of ice time.

Possible Solutions to Reduce Nurse’s Minutes

The Avalanche are a whole different beast which the Oilers haven’t faced in these playoffs yet, and while the team as a whole hasn’t been able to contain Colorado’s offensive firepower, their soon-to-be $9.25 million in average annual value (AAV) defenseman is struggling mightily to defend.

Former Edmonton Oiler Georges Laraque was on the “Oilers Now” radio show and defended Nurse, saying, “Just so people know because a lot of people criticize Darnell Nurse when he got beat by Mackinnon last game. Just so you guys understand, Darnell Nurse is faster, skating-wise than Mackinnon.. you know he’s hurt when Mackinnon goes around him like that because he’s physical and he’s way faster than that. And when we saw Mackinnon do that, that to me, confirmed to me, that he’s not 100%, but he’s still there for the team and he’s still playing.”

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While I don’t agree that Nurse is faster than Mackinnon, I do agree that he’s not playing at 100 percent, and if he was playing up to par, he wouldn’t have been walked around so easily by the Avalanche forward in Game 1. I feel right now there’s a vicious cycle going on with his psyche — his physical injury is affecting his decisions with the puck, which by extension, is negatively affecting his confidence. It’s something that isn’t going to get any better, anytime soon, with rumours circulating of him requiring offseason surgery.

So, what should the Oilers do? Whether he’s playing like it or not, Nurse is a leader on this Oilers’ squad and should be in the lineup if he’s physically capable, even if it’s in a limited role. However, one solution could be to increase Brett Kulak’s ice time. When Nurse was suspended for the Game 6 elimination game against the Los Angeles Kings for head-butting Philip Danault, it was the smooth-skating Kulak who filled in for Nurse’s minutes. Most recently, colour commentator Bob Stauffer praised Kulak’s strong gap control and commitment to stopping the cycle. Also, he’s been the most effective Oilers’ defenseman at attempting to shut down Colorado’s forwards off the rush.

Additionally, the Oilers at times throughout the playoffs have opted for 11 forwards and seven defensemen; however, have ridden the traditional 12 forwards and six defensemen in the first two games in the series against the Avalanche. I’d expect Edmonton to shake things up at home and play the 11-7 system, which would limit Nurse’s minutes. When his injury first hit the newswire, The Hockey Writer’s Colton Pankiw explored some solutions if he was unable to play, and made a case for veteran shot-blocking defenseman Kris Russell to be inserted into the lineup.

Pankiw also explored the possibility of Philip Broberg seeing some ice time. Although the rookie defender may not have been a good match-up in the more physical series against the Calgary Flames, his smooth skating could be an asset against a fast team like the Avalanche, over the slower Russell. That said, I understand that he’s still raw and it would be a mighty ask from a player with only 3:16 of Stanley Cup playoff experience.

Nonetheless, the 11-7 system might be the best method for the Oilers going forward. Former NHL general manager Brian Lawton was also on the “Oilers Now” show and was in favour of the system, saying, “It’s clear to me that there’s some labouring going on (with Nurse), but this is the time of year when players play, and when things are over, you find out they had something in a lot of ways is unimaginable that a guy is playing with.” He added, “But I absolutely would go 11-7 if it were me, just to have that safety blanket.”

Related: Oilers’ GM’s Comments Emphasize McDavid/Mackinnon Matchup

Although we don’t know the extent of Nurse’s injury in great detail, it’s clear that he’s not playing at the dominant level that he’s previously shown he’s capable of playing at. He’s a warrior for battling through injury, but at this time, it seems he’s too hurt to defend properly and it’s hurting his team as a result.

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