Signs point to bridge deal for Oilers, eager Darnell Nurse

Shawn McKenzie along with NHL insider Chris Johnston discuss the Edmonton Oilers expectations heading into this season, after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign.

TORONTO – Darnell Nurse doesn’t want to drag this out much longer.

The supersized defenceman with genes you wish you had and jeans you’ll never fit into calls his fellow Edmonton Oilers his brothers, his family.

He can’t imagine not joining them in Alberta in a couple weeks, under lowered expectations and heightened urgency, of stepping into camp determined to build off his best year personally and a kick in the head professionally.

The catch: Nurse, one of the NHL’s several restricted free agents still unsigned in these back-to-school shopping days, is the only Oiler without a job in place for the 2018-19 season — yet.

“No matter how long it takes or what goes down, I’m always ready to go. That’s always been my main focus: When the puck drops, I’ll be there,” Nurse said Monday at BioSteel Camp.

“I know at some point I’ll be playing in Oilers colours. I want to get it done before camp.” Then, perhaps realizing he sounds too eager for his own financial good, he adds: “What I want and what will happen are two different things.”

Nurse may be tipping his hand in this staredown with general manager Peter Chiarelli in which his only real ace to play would be to ghost at camp. Or, more dramatically, sit out actual games in which his presence in the top-four has become all that more critical with the news of Andrej Sekera’s injury.

But players want to play.

“He’s going to need to be there,” said captain Connor McDavid, point blank. “I think his game is only going to get better.”

Because Nurse, 23, had no arbitration rights this summer and because the Oilers are down to just $3.98 million in projected salary cap space, per CapFriendly.com, the wiggle room here is minimal, and a long-term commitment to the club’s top-scoring defenceman of 2017-18 appears like a long shot.

“I don’t see with their cap space being what it is that they can entice us with much term,” Nurse’s agent, Anton Thun, told the Edmonton Journal. “If they’ve got $5 million in cap space, it’s not going to be a long-term deal.”

OK, then.

For Nurse’s part, he uses words like “funny” and “weird” and “educational” to describe this summer’s negotiations, which have him and fellow RFA blue-liners on the rise Noah Hanifin (Calgary), Shea Theodore (Vegas) and Josh Morrissey (Winnipeg) embroiled in stalemates.

“Both sides want something a little different. There’s both good and bad with the fans. Some fans get on you and say, ‘You’re not that good. You don’t deserve that much.’ Others are like, ‘Ah, you’re great.’ It’s funny — a whole balancing act,” Nurse explained with a chuckle.

“I’m learning a lot going through this whole contract. It takes time. I have a lot faith I’ll be there in camp.”

No doubt, Nurse has kept a keen eye on comparables like Brady Skjei, who signed for six years at $5.25 million annually in New York, and Brandon Montour, who opted for a two-year bridge with Anaheim at a $3.38-million cap hit.

McDavid believes Nurse busted out of his shell this past season, both physically and offensively. The third-year defenceman’s 82 games played, six goals, 20 assists, 67 penalty minutes and plus-15 rating (on a minus-29 team) were all career bests, yet because Nurse believes he’s just scratching the surface of his offensive potential, he’s not afraid to bet on himself.

Nurse said Monday he’d be fine with a bridge contract, and we’re circling Montour (another BioSteel camper) as a reasonable template. Settle in the $3.4-million range, then knock your next deal out of the park. Make ’em pay for your UFA years.

“I’m pretty smart. I think anyone going through this process has an eye for what’s going on. I like to stay pretty involved in what’s going on. At the end of the day, we’re talking about my life here, too, not just my agent’s,” Nurse said.

“[Term] doesn’t matter to me. Either way, I have a lot to prove still. It doesn’t matter how long it is; I’m going to be hungry.”

They all should be, those Oilers.

Nurse calls the club’s 25-point year-over-year plummet, from 103-point threat in 2016-17 to 78-point embarrassment in 2017-18, “a kick in the head.” A chip for every shoulder.

After sniping and smiling on consecutive three-on-three rushes Monday, Nurse talked about how he has incorporated boxing, under trainer Jorge Blanco, to his training regimen this summer. He vows to be more dynamic, more disciplined, more physical. He wants to be counted on as a shutdown guy.

“Whatever he’s asked to do, he’ll do. He’s going to try and help his team win however he can. You have to have a lot of respect for a guy like that,” says Montreal’s Max Domi, a close friend and golden world junior teammate in 2015.

“He’s an unbelievable athlete. Not many people realize he can play football, basketball, soccer, you name it. And he’s elite at them all. He’s got some good genes.”

Goals, Nurse argues, haven’t been the issue in Edmonton. Preventing them is. Of all the Western clubs, only rebuilding Vancouver surrendered more goals last season than the Oilers’ 263.

“You can’t believe your own hype. We didn’t have that hunger we did the year before that made us so successful. For us, it’ll be good to have that back in the room,” Nurse said.

“It leaves a very bad taste in your mouth. All summer you have to think about it. It’s going to be a driving factor.”

Now, he just needs the keys.

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