“You have to walk before you can talk.”
— Darnell Nurse.
EDMONTON — For years, the Edmonton Oilers tried to import leadership. Because their best players were mostly teenagers, still learning the walk, and they just didn’t have the veterans on hand to show all those No. 1 overall draft picks the ropes.
So in they came, one after the next, year after year.
Ryan Whitney, who had gone to a Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh in ’08. Eric Belanger, a veteran depth centreman with 10 years in the league.
Nick Schultz, the glue guy from Minnesota. Boyd Gordon, who was Belanger 2.0 — only a better leader — they said.
Matt Hendricks was a true gamer. Milan Lucic was a former Cup winner, but alas, lacked in game by the time he arrived in Edmonton.
As they blew through the revolving door that was the Oilers dressing room, a funny thing happened. Edmonton’s drafting improved, which mean that some of the young players that required leadership were good enough to still be here four and five years into their careers. They were becoming good players, and slowly, leaders in their own right.
Now, like Darnell Nurse, they run this dressing room — just another sign of the functionality that exists in Edmonton, a pleasant change for fans in these parts.
How has his leadership role in the dressing room grown over the past few years?
“It’s become bigger and bigger,” Nurse said Monday in a Zoom session with reporters. “When you talk leadership roles, you have to walk before you can talk. You can’t say anything if you’re not doing your job on the ice.
“As my game has grown, I’ve had more confidence to be a more vocal leader, a guy trying to bring life when it’s needed, bring a message when it’s needed. We have a great mix of guys who’ve been around the league for a while, and some of the top players in the league who bring it each and every day. It’s been fun for me to take some stuff away from guys as well as become more vocal.”
Along the way, Nurse earned his chops the old fashioned way.
He picked Lucic for his first NHL fight back in 2015. He fought Ryan Reaves and Michael McCarron, then mercilessly pounded Roman Polak in defence of Hendricks, when it appeared the veteran had received a dangerous cheap shot from Polak.
Meanwhile, Nurse’s game caught up with his “scary” level, to the point where he trailed only Oscar Klefbom in minutes played this season, averaging 23:27 per night.
These days he only fights about three times a season. Doesn’t have to as often anymore — at 6-foot-4, 220 lbs., there aren’t so many takers in today’s NHL.
Now, Nurse walks the walk, and talks the talk as a homegrown leader in Edmonton. He, Connor McDavid, Leon Drasiaitl and Klefbom, they’re the core leaders here, all 26 or under.
“He’s very important,” Klefbom said of Nurse. “I think it was no surprise that he got assistant captain this year, well-deserved. Great guy in the locker room. Very professional.
“He’s a big, strong guy and he’s very important for us on the blueline. To have him healthy and playing a lot of minutes, strong minutes, that’s going to help us in the long run. I’m really looking forward to seeing Darnell playing in the future and see where he ends up because he has a lot of potential.”
You can do all the work you want in the free agent market, but until you can draft the lion’s share of a roster it is impossible to win.
Edmonton’s blueline now is made up of drafted players Klefbom, Nurse, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, and Matt Benning (signed as a college free agent), plus acquired veterans Adam Larsson and Kris Russell. Drafted D-men Evan Bouchard, William Lagesson, Philip Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov are waiting in the wings.
The young ones will come along at their own speed, but now they’ll have Nurse as a veteran shoulder to lean on. And Klefbom. And Bear. And Jones. All lifetime Oilers — rather than some free agent veteran who has parachuted in from elsewhere.
“For me, the first year, it had its ups and downs. Our team wasn’t a great defensive team and you’re trying to learn the way in the NHL. It’s tough — that’s the reality of it,” Nurse said of his own rookie season. “[Coaches] Jim Johnson and Todd McLellan and Woody [Jay Woodcroft], they helped me out so much. Whether I was going through one of those stretches where you’re playing good, or if you’re down on yourself, they always found a way to keep me going.”
When you don’t have the proper leadership model, it’s hard to know what one truly looks like. It’s why teams like Boston are always good — because they’ve got layers of players who learned how to win from Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, who passed it down to down to Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, then to the Jake DeBrusks and Torey Krugs.
“Especially in your rookie year,” agreed Nurse, “it’s easy to get in your own head. Growing up in a world of social media where we can see as a player, especially a younger guy coming into the league and you’re so used to being on Twitter or Instagram, you see everything everyone’s saying about you. It’s easy when you’re in a hockey market to get [down] on yourself.
“So that’s one of the lessons I got to learn in my first year and I think guys that are in their first year as D-men this year, these guys have been great.
“I’m just trying to help out where I can.”