Oilers Do the Right Thing in Sending Darnell Nurse Back to Junior

The fact that the Edmonton Oilers sent defenseman Darnell Nurse back to the OHL is not a huge surprise. Many assumed that the writing was on the wall in training camp and this was the inevitable move barring sensational play on his part.

The point is that the Oilers should be applauded in putting Nurse’s development first and foremost, something they have not always done.

Bucking the Trend

Over the last number of years, very few of the Oilers first round picks were sent back to junior. In the last eight years five of those top draft picks started the season with the NHL club.

That number in itself is not shocking as it appears to be the way of the game where more often than not top end selections are sticking as 18 year olds.

The question is whether it is best for their development. Here’s a look at the last eight top picks and where they played the season following their selection.

  • 2014 – Leon Draisaitl (3rd) – Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
  • 2013 – Darnell Nurse (7th) – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
  • 2012 – Nail Yakupov (1st) – Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
  • 2011 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st) – Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
  • 2010 – Taylor Hall (1st) – Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
  • 2009 – Magnus Paarjarvi (10th) – Timra IK (Sweden)
  • 2008 – Jordan Eberle (22nd) – Regina Pats (WHL)
  • 2007 – Sam Gagner (6th) – Edmonton Oilers (NHL)

Many of the names can be debated, whether they should have stayed or been sent back for a year. Names like Gagner, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov continue to be debated even today.

This years top selection, Draisaitl, is another case where they debate rages. In a perfect world he plays his 9 games with Edmonton and then is sent back to the WHL for more seasoning. However with the Oilers they have a significant weakness at the centre position and Draisaitl may be needed there, ready or not.

Such has been the case with the Oilers over the last few years as a struggling, rebuilding team in need of talent.

Writing Was on the Wall

In Nurse’s case this season, he was in an opposite situation to Draisaitl. GM Craig MacTavish had added depth on defense and there was really no room for Nurse.

The team has five NHL defensemen that had spots locked down coming into the season in Justin Schultz, Andrew Ference, Mark Fayne, Nikita Nikitin and Jeff Petry, which left Nurse battling for at best the 6th spot.

There were also no shortage of players vying for those positions including Martin Marincin, Oscar Klefbom, Brad Hunt and Keith Aulie, all of whom have more NHL experience than Nurse.

Since no NHL team is going to keep a top prospect as a 7th defenseman, it would have taken a monumental effort for Nurse to force his way in as a regular.

More Opportunity for Development

While there are certain advantages to learning on the fly at the NHL level, in the case of Nurse, his development is better served in junior.

Especially in the case of defensemen who traditionally take longer to develop then forwards. When looking at the majority of players who have played as 18 year olds, they are primarily forwards, and it is rare to see an 18 year old defenseman be an NHL regular.

Nurse will go back to the OHL and into an ideal situation. He will return to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds who are one of the best teams in the OHL and currently sit second in the OHL’s Western Conference. He will once again wear the “C” and look to captain a strong team to a potential Memorial Cup.

Arguably the OHL’s best defenseman, Nurse should also get an opportunity to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships and on home soil this season in front of packed crowds in Toronto and Montreal.

An experience such as that, especially if it culminates in a medal, could be invaluable for his development. Nurse would be counted on as one of the team’s top defenseman, likely in a shutdown role.

“So there’s a lot of work for him to put in as well, so we’ll be here to help him through that whole process of looking to make the (Canadian) World Junior Team, and the NHL as well.” – Greyhounds head coach Sheldon Keefe

Returning him to junior this year could make Nurse ready to step right into a top four role next season. Few rookie defensemen are able to do so, but Nurse certainly has the package to do just that. He has the physical tools, no question, and as a 20 year old will be better able to process the game at a high speed as it comes at him.

The decision to return Nurse may have been easier than some for the Edmonton Oilers, but it is nonetheless the right one. This year will be an important and valuable year of experience and progression for Nurse and will benefit the Oilers in the long run.

Darnell Nurse has the ability to be the first legitimate top pairing defenseman for the Oilers since Chris Pronger left town.

A lot of expectation has been placed on his shoulders, but the Oilers have done the right thing in protecting his development and fans can expect to see Nurse next season on the Oilers blueline and for many years to come.


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