EDMONTON — Darnell Nurse has established himself as a pillar on which this Edmonton Oilers team will be built. He’s not the perfect player, but he has been drafted and developed by Edmonton, he’s the biggest toughest guy they have, and he can play anywhere up and down the defensive grid in a pinch.
Nurse isn’t a great player, OK? But the Oilers have proven that two great players can’t get you to the playoffs if they’re not surrounded by enough good ones, and that’s what the Oilers alternate captain is: a very good, valuable part of this roster in ways you may not even know.
You need only watch how Nurse, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take a moment during pre-game warmups to gather, finding something to have a laugh about more games than not. He’s right in the middle of this thing — a big part of the Oilers conscience, their leadership, and pretty much everything else that makes a hockey team tick.
He likely won’t sign an eight-year deal, but he’ll sign because he wants to play in Edmonton. Why wouldn’t he?
And what possible reasons would general manager Ken Holland have — assuming the Nurse camp is reasonable — to mess with this core player just when it looks like they might finally have something in Edmonton?
When you’re trying to build a culture as strong as the one in Boston, or San Jose, or Pittsburgh, and you’ve had as many stops and starts as Edmonton has had, it would simply be dumb to part with a piece of that core because of a million bucks, or an immediate need at another position. Holland gets that.
Having said that, the player has to realize that intangibles only go so far when negotiating a contract. And that he is — on a good team — a middle-pairing defenceman. If the Oilers are ever going to become a consistent winner, it will be with Nurse allowing an Ethan Bear freedom to roam — likely not even as the No. 2 to a dynamic No. 1. Say, a Brent Seabrook to Evan Bouchard’s Duncan Keith.
Nurse is a restricted free agent this summer, and it sounds very much like Holland will wait until the summer to finalize that contract. The cap situation inherited by Holland makes it nearly impossible to sign Nurse to a long-term deal, and as it appears the defenceman’s offensive numbers will drop year over year, it’s a safe bet that the Nurse camp will be ready to settle for a bridge deal.
This is the point where the sides will diverge: what kind of defenceman is Nurse, really? And what is he capable of, given greater offensive opportunity (which he may never get in Edmonton, frankly)?
Nurse had 41 points last season, a career high that was set partially because of the power-play time he received when Oscar Klefbom lost 29 games to injury. Nurse played over 151 power-play minutes last season and in more offensive situations five-on-five. This season he is on pace for less than half of those minutes and just 34 points overall, with Klefbom healthy and playing on an Edmonton first unit that uses just one defenceman and tends to play at least 90 seconds of every power-play opportunity, and sometimes more.
On the farm, the Oilers have Bouchard and an offensive orientated D-man named Dmitri Samorukov. Smooth-skating Swede Filip Broberg, the 2019 No. 8 overall pick, is still 18 and playing in Sweden.
So, Nurse’s offensive opportunities are likely to decrease in the long-term.
Nurse’s best qualities are his size, his defending ability — remember how became the shutdown guy for Team Canada at the … world juniors? — and the fact he is one of a small group that are considered the toughest players in the NHL today. (There is no “toughest player.”)
Fighting is clearly on its way out. However, it still happens, and the threat of violence remains a deterrent in the NHL. Nurse’s first NHL fight was against Milan Lucic in 2015, and he has since tussled with Micheal Haley, Ryan Reaves, Michael McCarron, and pretty much anyone who has asked for some action over his five NHL seasons.
He is as tough as there is, and he can play 22 minutes a night. There’s value in that.
The six-foot-four Nurse transports the puck well, using a long stride to get the puck to the centre line when an open forward can’t be found. His offensive instincts have not evolved to the point where he creates a lot of offence when he carries it into the other team’s end, however.
Sure, sometimes a Nurse blast goes in — and he has an above-average bomb. But his value with the puck tends to end as he enters the offensive zone.
There is no way Nurse deserves Jacob Trouba money (seven years, $8-million AAV), as a sub-35 point D-man to Trouba’s 50 points and superior puck-moving abilities.
Is Josh Morrissey, and his new eight-year, $6.25-million AAV deal accurate? Well, they aren’t the same defenceman, but their value is in the same ballpark, with Morrissey at the high end of comparables for Nurse.
What about Klefbom, who is a better defenceman overall, but without the physical game that Nurse brings? He signed a seven-year deal with an AAV of $4.2 million back in 2015, a deal that leaves him underpaid by today’s production.
Nurse will be due more than Klefbom makes, even if he plays below the Swede on the Oilers blue line.
We’ll say he’ll do a bridge deal this summer that gets him to unrestricted free agency: two years, $10.5 million.
And after 12 months, the two sides will begin work on a contract that will keep Nurse in Edmonton from age 27 to 33.
Because if things go right, by that time there should be some Cups to win here.