Oilers, Nurse focused on starting new season strong

Gene Principe and Mark Spector discuss the Edmonton Oilers signing Darnell Nurse.

EDMONTON — As we have heard from inside the dressing room of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s a complicated balance between being a teammate and a union brother.

Le’Veon Bell’s ongoing holdout has not been unilaterally supported by fellow NFLPA members inside that Steelers room. In fact, they’re more worried about the effect Bell’s holdout has on the Steelers’ success, than whether it provides any rising salary tide for running backs across the National Football League.

In hockey, more often, it works the other way. The rare player who does hold out tends to self-reflect over the effect his absence has on his team.

It’s just the way hockey players are raised. “Hockey is a team-first game,” Darnell Nurse said on Monday, after signing a two-year, $6.4 million deal that will have him back at Oilers training camp on Tuesday morning.

The Nurse deal actually started on Sunday in Winnipeg, where Jets D-man Joshua Morrissey ended his holdout just three days into camp, signing a team-friendly, two-year bridge deal.

“Honestly, it would weigh more on me if my teammates weren’t more supportive,” Nurse began over the phone from Burlington, Ont. “But hockey’s a team-first game, and I’m the first one — if a guy gets blown up (by a big check) — who will jump in, no matter who it’s against. Or block a shot.

“But I’m also the first one to say, it sucked to be away from camp and being away from the guys.”

Morrissey sounded no less relieved that his foray into the “business side” of hockey had concluded — at least until two summers from now.

“The business side’s all in the past and I can get back to doing what I do best — playing hockey,” a relieved-sounding Morrissey told the Winnipeg media. “(It was) tough… Really, really tough. There’s nothing more that I want than to be with the guys on the ice, in the room.”

Morrissey signed for two years at $3.15 million per. With nearly identical stats to Nurse — even if the two players aren’t the same — it established a marketplace that Nurse quickly dove into.

“We weren’t very far from that before the weekend,” said Nurse, who admitted the Morrissey deal “probably sped things up, for sure.”

The common thread? Each team — and every player therein — is concerned about starting the season strong, ironically, after watching what happened here in Edmonton last season.

The Oilers fell flat after having their breakout season two years ago, starting slowly and chasing the season the rest of the way. The focus here is palpable. These players may get this team into the playoffs, and they may not. But they will not fail because of an inattentive start to the season, and Nurse no doubt saw his readiness as a big part of that equation.

“I had conversations about (the start) with Connor (McDavid) and other guys over the summer,” Nurse said. “Everyone knows the importance of being ready for that first puck drop. Definitely, we’re aware of that. I’ll be ready as soon as I step on the ice (Tuesday). I know everyone will be too.”

In Winnipeg, the Jets are coming off their breakout season, a year in which several players had career years. In a copycat league, you can rest assured the Jets coaching staff did its best to ascertain exactly what went wrong in Edmonton last season, and came up with ways to combat that.

For Morrissey, part of that was not to be a distraction, thus limiting his “holdout” to only a couple of days and settling for a team-friendly contract.

Nurse saw his value skyrocket in the wake of the summertime news of Andrej Sekera’s right Achilles tendon injury. He becomes, undoubtedly, the Oilers’ No. 3 defenceman — unfortunately restricted free agent status did not afford him any bargaining power beyond withholding his services.

Now, Nurse has to put up the kind of numbers that can earn him five or six million annually in his third pro contract. He’ll have two years to prove his value, already a core member of this young leadership group with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

What is Nurse? Right now he is a good defender, physically dominant in his own zone, with a decent shot. He skates the puck out of his own zone well, but has not shown an affinity to make plays in the offensive zone once he gets there.

He is, like all 23-year-olds, a developing player. Nurse has played just 197 NHL games, and is clearly a second-pairing defenceman. Could he be a No. 2 one day?

A Brent Seabrook to a Duncan Keith. A Jake Muzzin to a Drew Doughty?

Well, the Oilers would have to find a true No. 1 for us to know for sure.

In the meantime, with the steady Adam Larsson playing next to a more offensive Oscar Klefbom, how would the lefty Nurse look next to right-handed offensive prospects Evan Bouchard or Ethan Bear?

There’s the makings of a defence here in Edmonton. Nurse is an integral part of that.

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