Nurse makes good on promise to dominate OHL

The Edmonton Oilers assigned defenceman Darnell Nurse to the American Hockey League's Oklahoma City Barons, the NHL team announced Wednesday. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

TORONTO –It’s been discussed ad nauseam: If the Edmonton Oilers are going to become one of the National Hockey League’s elite, something has to be done about their defence.

True. But let’s switch gears for a moment and focus on the positive logs, of which there are many if you’re keen on potential.

Twenty-two-year-old Olympian Martin Marincin has been progressing nicely and is playing upward of 18 minutes a night alongside Jeff Petry most often; Oscar Klefbom, 20, is now getting his feet wet after spending much of the season on a similar path, honing his craft with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons before making his NHL debut late last week.

Both have impressed, both are exciting, young prospects with loads of potential, and both will be critical to the Oilers’ success on the other side of this rebuild. (If all goes to plan, that is.)

On deck: Darnell Nurse, the gifted gazelle – perhaps the most highly regarded of the emerging D trio, who’s showing promising signs with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. The seventh pick in the 2013 NHL Draft was sent back to the Soo after an outstanding pre-season in which he collected a pair of assists in four exhibition games.

Since then, he’s been busy delivering on a promise.

In 64 games this season, the 19-year-old product of Hamilton, Ont., recorded career highs in goals (13), assists (37) and points (50), leading the Greyhounds to 44 wins, 95 points and a second-place seeding in the OHL’s Western Conference.

In short, as the numbers suggest, he’s had an incredible third season in the Soo.

I caught up with Hounds general manager Kyle Dubas last week at the OHL Cup to discuss that in more detail.

“He’s the captain of our team – the heart-and-soul leader of a team that’s really overachieved,” he said. “The reason why we’ve been able to do that and have the success we’ve had is because of what Darnell brings to the table every single day.”

Off the ice and in the dressing room, the captain’s chronicles run deep. “Five minutes. That’s all you need to see what kind of a leader he is,” Dubas says. “The work ethic he has in the weight room, how he involves everyone on the team at all times…”

On the ice, it’s more of the same – and the numbers, beyond the traditional offensive box scores, back it up.

Beyond scoring totals and the commonly used but contextually absent statistical bedfellow (go plus/minus!), there isn’t much to work with when it comes to the depth of information available, especially that in the advanced realm. That’s not so much a criticism as it is reality in hockey, as cutting-edge and publicly consumable data collection is only now becoming more ubiquitous and multi-faceted. Behind the scenes in the Soo, they’re hard at work mining data – and in the case of Darnell Nurse, the yarn spells an intriguing tale of excellence.

In particular, Dubas and the club’s manager of ticket sales and advanced analytics, Tyson Enfield, pay close attention to individual and team possession stats. Those, such as Corsi and Quality of Competition, reflect glowingly on the young defenceman.

We aren’t privy to the Hounds’ in-house figures, but according to Dubas, there’s no guesswork here.

“People get obsessed with Darnell’s plus/minus (plus-1, down from plus-15 the year prior), but his underlying numbers are excellent,” Dubas said. “Relative to the competition he plays [against], he does extremely well. Far greater than 50 percent of the time, the puck is not in our end. To me, it doesn’t get much bigger than that. If we’re taking the other team’s best players and forcing them to play in their end and away from the puck, that’s a successful day.

“The quality of competition he’s faced is higher than anyone else in our league, especially among defencemen.”

A lofty, but highly encouraging note from the GM – especially so, considering the league boasts a pantheon of skill, with the likes of Aaron Ekblad (Barrie Colts), Anthony DeAngelo (Sarnia Sting) and others holding court on the back end.

Averaging more than 27 minutes per game against the opposition’s best players, “with no exceptions,” night after night in all situations? “That’s Darnell,” Dubas says. “There are no shifts off.” He’s been a force, an absolute brute on the Soo blueline. To the many of us who’ve watched the 6-foot-3, 192-pound defenceman for any period of time, it comes as no surprise.

“He’s extraordinarily athletic – one of the most athletic hockey players you’ll ever see,” Dubas said, adding that the goal of the Greyhounds’ program is to develop great pros.

“He has an incredible reach and the ability to cover a lot of ground laterally. Not many players have the physical makeup and the intelligence to cover ground, close gaps and read a developing play the way he can. At our level, the game is a little more erratic than it is at the NHL level. There are times when he can be made to look poorly because he’s going over to cover where he should be, but things get a little crazy and something unexpected happens.

“Even if it does, he recovers so well. He’s such a pleasure to watch.”

So, about that promise Nurse made back in September? “I’m going to go back and dominate my league.”

No arguments here. With the same bravado and dedicated showmanship he wowed Oil Country with earlier this year, he sure has lived up to the hype.

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