EDMONTON — Darnell Nurse has matured over the years into an eloquent voice of leadership from inside the Edmonton Oilers dressing room. Like any good leader he’s no open book to the media, but his tone is a tell.
If he states a priority he’s doing it for a reason. So spend some time around Kia’s big brother, and you come away with a fair idea about what priorities the Oilers players have set.
We opened a Thursday interview with the topic of filling the 25 minutes of ice time left open by the shoulder injury to Oscar Klefbom, and Nurse obliged. “You lose a guy as big as Klef, every guy has to pick up a little extra. For me, playing the left side, a lot of that responsibility is going to fall on my shoulders. I look forward to the challenge.”
The 25-year-old then quickly segued to a related but separate topic, a tell as to where his head is at as he and several of the Oilers players skate daily in preparation for the coming season.
We asked, who will get the minutes? Nurse’s reply was, the “who” isn’t as important as the “how.”
“Five-on-five, obviously, we have to get our goals down,” Nurse said. “We talk about it far too often in the last five years that I’ve been here. That’s a big goal of mine: to help any way I can to keep those goal numbers down. To be a team that wins consistently in this league you can’t be giving up over two-and-a-half, three goals a night. That’s a goal of ours, and a goal of mine for sure. That’s some of the slack I can pick up.
“From a team standpoint we’ve always talked about keeping goals out of our own net. This year, with the sprint that the season is going to be, it is if the utmost importance that we do it right off the bat. That’s a goal of mine.”
It’s been four months since the Chicago Blackhawks embarrassed his Edmonton Oilers in the Qualifying Round, but Nurse wouldn’t go there. “What was that? Four, five months ago?” he said. “I don’t sit back and dwell on that.”
It was the case, however, that the Oilers produced plenty of offence in that four-game loss to the Blackhawks, averaging 3.75 goals per game. That they surrendered, on average, a league-worst 4.00 might be the thread that ties together Nurse’s theme for the coming season with his unwillingness to dissect how the last one ended for Edmonton.
Are the Oilers ready to embrace Nurse’s philosophy on goals-against? So that when playoffs come, and the game changes, they’re ready?
“(I can’t) make a definitive answer for each and every person,” Nurse began. "But I do think that the taste was bad enough in everyone’s mouth that it will definitely be a goal of everyone’s.”
Question: Did the Oilers lose that series because they simply couldn’t keep the puck out of their net?
“It’s just been an M.O. of ours for a long time,” Nurse said. “Is that part of what happened in that series? Yes. It’s been something we’ve known we needed to work on, not just in that series, but even in the regular season we could be better defensively.”
So perhaps Nurse becomes the microcosm of what we’ve stated repeatedly — to much derision from some Oilers fans, we might add. Edmonton has plenty of offence, but when the game gets tighter in the playoffs they did not have the ability to tighten up their run ‘n’ gun game.
The guys who get the most ice time — and that surely includes Nurse, as it does Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — have to be more focussed on giving up less.
“I think that is a lot of people’s goals,” said Nurse.
With Klefbom out, Nurse will be the left defenceman they send over the boards to protect a lead, more often than not. In a time when we tend to judge defencemen on their offensive work — perhaps too much at times — what the Oilers will require from Nurse is leadership in the D-zone.
He’ll have to become their shutdown guy.
“Goals, goals, goals – that’s what everyone looks for and what you see on the highlights. It’s great on social media, right? Everyone wants to see goals,” he said. “But the defensive part of it will always be a big part of winning … in the playoffs. Even a team like Tampa, whose known for scoring so many goals, when they came to the playoffs they played some of the tightest checking hockey you’ll see. It’s the common denominator of every team that’s been really good.”
That said, he doesn’t plan to turn into Derian Hatcher.
“Shutdown guys are different now. Everyone thinks of the stereotypical shutdown guy from the ‘90s, early 20000’s. They didn’t cross the red-line. I’ve watched every game — the games I am most effective is when I am moving my feet. It’s not just sitting back. It’s closing on things quick and taking away time and space.”
He can do it, just as the Oilers can pitch a shutout, or a one-goal-against game now and again.
“I’m looking forward to doing it more often.”
He’ll have to. They all will.