Leaner, smarter Nurse ready to take control of his progress for Oilers

Watch as Darnell Nurse gets the Oilers on the board with the first shot of the game, firing a rocket from the point against Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.

EDMONTON — There is a time in every successful athlete’s life where they begin to figure things out on their own. That moment when they stop listening to what everyone around them is saying they should be — or telling them what they can’t be — and they take control of their own mission.

Meet Darnell Nurse, the leaner, smarter and — if he has a say — more-dynamic-than-ever-before defenceman for the Edmonton Oilers.

“I’m going into my fifth year in the league now, and when you first come in, everyone is like, ‘Put on weight. Put on weight,’” Nurse recalled on Sunday morning, in a long, confident chat at Rogers Place, another sign that this 24-year-old has grown up. “Honestly, I would go home in the summer, eat as much as I could, get in the best shape as I could while trying to be as heavy as possible. And sometimes uncomfortably, to be honest.

“It kind of just clicked in my head this summer. Why am I forcing myself to just get heavier and heavier, when I could just be at a comfortable weight and just see where my strength goes? And it’s been kind of weird: My strength has skyrocketed just by finding my comfortable weight.”

He’s stronger at 215 pounds than he was at 225?

“And more powerful too,” he said. “I know the Twitter trainers might not understand that concept, but it’s cool. I just got in a state of mind where I was doing things that were comfortable, and stopped trying to force everything. That’s where my head is at.”

His arms aren’t big, and his chest is more like a decathlete than a the traditional, six-foot-four NHL defenceman. “It’s a fast league. You’ve got to stay fast.”

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse controls the puck as Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn defends. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

The questions that have followed Nurse, however, have always been more about his head than his body. When it comes to offence, where he has always wanted to become an effective points producer, scouts tend to focus on what Nurse leaves in his wake when he makes his offensive forays.

For instance, Nurse went from 26 points and a plus-15 rating two seasons ago, to 41 points and minus-five last season. Yes, we know there are a lot of factors to consider, and plus-minus does not tell the whole story. But the gist is, they don’t call them “offencemen” — they are known as defencemen for a reason.

So while Nurse did lead all Oilers defencemen in points last season — tied for 27th among all NHL blueliners — the trick here is to produce points but be the shutdown defenceman Nurse was drafted to be.

“Looking at his game from last year, I thought he really grew on when and where he can go for offence,” said the quiet Swede Adam Larsson, who will be Nurse’s new partner under head coach Dave Tippett, at least through training camp. “There’s a fine line there, and I thought he really did that well last year. He took a lot of steps last year, and I want to help him grow some more.”

Ironically, Larsson dropped 10 pounds himself this year, after a 2018-19 campaign he was unhappy with. He’s at 202 pounds, lean and hungry to reclaim his spot as one of the NHL’s harder-to-play-against defenders.

“When you feel like you’ve had a disappointing season, you’re more open to changes. I was open, and I changed a lot of things in my training,” he said. “Even if you’re going to play a big, heavy game, you still have to keep up. The league is getting smaller and faster, and even the big guys have to keep up with those smaller forwards.

“I feel great on the ice right now.”

Like Klefbom for the past few seasons, whoever plays with the defensive-minded Larsson is freed up to roam a little bit more. That could be the start of something beautiful for a guy in a contract year, as Nurse is, or it could be a free pass to fall on the wrong side of that “fine line” of when to go and when to say, “No.”

“Not that you can take more risks, but you know (Larsson) will be in the right spot to back you up, so you can try to make a couple of more plays,” Nurse figured. “Having said that, when you play with Larss you’re playing against the top lines. So, the risk to reward is a really, really fine line.”

Nurse’s career points totals have climbed consistently, from 10, to 11, to 26 to 41. To hear him tell it, being a 50-point defenceman is well within his parameters.

“My offensive game grew last year, yeah, but I think there is a whole lot more I can produce, just from watching tape. Whether it’s on the rush, from the blue-line,” he said.

Or with more power-play time, where he was on and off the top unit at practice Sunday, sharing the assignment with Klefbom.

“In my mind I don’t think I’m close to the ceiling that I can get to.”

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