Oilers need a healthy, in-form Darnell Nurse to salvage series vs. Avalanche

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse, left, tangles with Colorado Avalanche left wing Andre Burakovsky in the first period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 21, 2022, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

As hard as general managers, coaches and fans all try to find them, there aren’t many undeniable trends between past Stanley Cup-winning teams “they all contain some great players.” The game changes so much every few years that what worked in one era rarely applies directly to the next, there’s randomness involved with injuries and drawing opponents, and frankly, and there’s just not enough Cup champs to call anything a decent enough sample size for conclusions.

That said, there is one thing. Cup-winning teams (almost) always have one great defenceman. Yes, there are years that teams have found a way in the absence of one (the Penguins did win with Kris Letang injured), but those are the rare exceptions that come with most rules. Usually there’s Victor Hedman, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo or peak Zdeno Chara.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have Hedman. The New York Rangers have the current holder of the Norris Trophy, Adam Fox. The Colorado Avalanche have Cale Makar, who’s been a Norris finalist in back-to-back seasons. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers have:

A) Duncan Keith, a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and a name more than worthy of being included with Hedman, Doughty, Chara, etc. for being the backbone of Chicago’s Stanley Cup teams. Unfortunately, at this stage of his career Keith is no longer that player.


B) Darnell Nurse, who is very good, the team’s No. 1 defenceman, and a player who needs to be a whole lot better than he was in Games 1 and 2 if the Oilers are going to upset the West regular season champs and heavy favourites.

I single out Nurse in this article because he’s the only guy on the Oilers’ D-corps with the ceiling to lead their team from the defensive side to an unlikely comeback. Like a teacher going back at the same student for answers because they see potential, this isn’t meant to pick on him so much as to highlight how effective he can be, and how he’s struggled against the Avs so far (and even before that).

The most important caveat here is that let’s be honest, the man is hurt. When asked about him after Game 2, Jay Woodcroft basically shrugged and said “He’s giving us all he can. He’s a warrior.” That basically means “The guy shouldn’t be playing but his 60-70 per cent is better than the next available guy’s 100 per cent, so we’ll take it without complaint.” We don’t know how healthy or hurt he is, but it’s obviously affecting him, as the numbers below show.

In Game 1, he led the Oilers’ D in 5-on-5 ice time with over 20 minutes, and in that time, he threw two hits and took none, blocked one shot, and found a second assist on one of his team’s six goals. He was also last among Oilers defencemen in shot and shot attempt percentages, and dead last among all 18 Oilers’ skaters in expected goals percentage. When he was out there, nearly 70 per cent of the expected goals were against Edmonton. In Game 2, his expected goals percentage went from roughly 30 per cent to around 35 per cent, meaning that when he’s been on the ice at even strength in this series, there’s been about a 65-70 per cent chance that the next goal scored is going to be for Colorado. (For contrast, the Avalanche’s top D-man, Cale Makar, has been at 62 per cent and 80 per cent while facing Connor McDavid’s line.)

This is the thing about playing with injury: guys do everything conceivable to get themselves out on the rink and playing, and so to our eye, they look like they do on days they do great things. We rarely see it, and if we do, it’s bad. My point there is, we can’t point to any one thing Nurse has done and say “that’s where the injury is effecting him.” There’s just hasn’t been those moments where he does something surprisingly great to turn the play in the Oilers favour.

More than anything, I often just see him a few inches on the wrong side of guys I feel like he’d normally be able to snuff out. He’s chasing.

During the two-minute (and four-second) span the Avalanche went bananas on the Oilers in Game 2, Nurse was minus-three, making a wishy-washy pass on the first one:

…A wishy-washy rim-pass on the second one:

…And was left out to dry on a 2-on-1 that was passed through his stick.

None of the moments were objectively awful, but “better than bad” isn’t the bar for Nurse.

Over decades of watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs and how playing styles have evolved, the constant of a team needing that one guy to throw over the boards to calm thing down for their team – hello, Nick Lidstrom – has never changed.

When the Leafs came out in Game 1 against the Lightning and sent them reeling with a 5-0 beatdown, the Bolts could’ve been shook. Instead, the presence and experience of Victor Hedman took over, and in Game 2, he scored a goal and three assists for four points in nearly 24 minutes of ice as the Lightning evened the series.

When the Rangers were down 3-1 versus the Penguins, the next three games saw Adam Fox pile up six points en route to a comeback. Down 3-2 against Carolina, he put up four points in two games to do it again when they needed him most. Points aside, he got them through their toughest matchup minutes.

For the Oilers, Nurse has been handed a brutal assignment, spending most of his time on the ice against Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, approaching nearly 20 minutes of ice against each guy. You would expect his stats to take some abuse with that.

But on the other side, Makar has spent about 25 minutes on the ice head-to-head versus McDavid, and in that time, shots are 37-16 Colorado, who are up in goals over that time 4-1.

Your best guys must handle the opposition’s best guys or… well, you lose.

Maybe I’m making a comparison that’s unfair to Nurse here, given the guys I’m discussing are the literal best players in the world at their position. And it’s definitely unfair to ask elite play from a guy who’s hurt. So the point here isn’t that Nurse has let his team down, it’s looking for a way for Edmonton to get back in this series, and finding that the D-man that’s the Oilers time-on-ice leader at even strength is getting pummeled in his minutes. It has to be an area of focus for them now, as there’s three things can happen now for the Oilers:

1. Nurse finds a way to play better and they have a chance.

2. The Oilers find a way to ease the workload/competition level for him, others step up, and they have a chance.

3. Nothing changes and they lose.

A lot has to go right for the Oilers to find their way back in this series. Mike Smith needs to be great, the offence needs to look more like Game 1 than Game 2, and they need to slow the Avs down, somehow.

But none of it will matter if they don’t have a pair, or at least a single guy who can hang with Colorado’s biggest threats.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.