Oilers’ Darnell Nurse elevates his game as he makes bid for Olympics

Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse (25) celebrates a goal against the Winnipeg Jets during third period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — After averaging 25:38 of ice time per game last season, Darnell Nurse was supposed to play a little less this year, his head coach Dave Tippett promised. So why, after just two games, does Nurse lead the entire NHL with an average of over 30 minutes per game?

“I’m working on it,” Tippett pleaded Monday, offering the standard retort after only two Edmonton Oilers games. “It’s a small sample size!”

Those two words — “small” and “Nurse” — have seldom made it into the same sentence over the years.

For one, Nurse is six-foot-four and 220 pounds. And second, when Nurse used to make a mistake, it was never small.

Today, however, the 26-year-old is in the conversation to make the Canadian Olympic team as a left-shot defenceman, a group that includes names like Shea Theodore, Morgan Rielly, Thomas Chabot, Josh Morrissey, Jakob Chychrun, perhaps a Devon Toews, and oldsters like Duncan Keith and Mark Giordano.

It is not an impermeable group for a player like Nurse, whose game has settled down remarkably over the past couple of seasons.

Today’s Darnell Nurse thinks more quickly and is calmer with the puck than yesterday’s Darnell Nurse. He takes fewer chances offensively and does more with the puck when he chooses to go. Making more of the right decisions all over the ice leaves him in better position defensively than he used to be.

Nurse, who teammates call “Doc,” doesn’t chase the hit the way he once did, or chase offence that isn’t there. That old adage, “the game comes to him,” applies more and more often, as you watch Nurse play 28-plus minutes and never look tired.

“I know Seabs (Brent Seabrook) was a good skater,” began Keith, “but I don’t know if I’ve ever played with a guy who is as big a (Nurse) is but can skate as well as he can. And the thing he brings too is that element of physicality and meanness. I don’t think that can be forgotten, especially with some of the players we have on our team.”

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Ironically, it is Keith’s spot on that Team Canada defensive corps that Nurse will be shooting for, as a younger, bigger and better skating Nurse tries to find a level comparable to what Keith was laying down back when he was an Olympic regular in 2010 and 2014.

And Nurse is taking notes — literally. It’s a practice he started a couple of years ago, keeping a notebook to track the areas where he thought he could improve.

“I watched video of all my games before that, and had a lot of thoughts on things I wanted to improve on,” Nurse said. “But I couldn’t really nail things down. I thought, ‘Why don’t I take notes, and then go over those notes every 10 games or so to see if there is a tendency or two I could highlight from those notes? Then, see if it carries on to the next 10 games?’

“I watch every shift now that I play during the regular season.”

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Nurse is that thoroughbred that has perhaps finally grown into his body — whose mind is catching up his God-given skills, the way a driver learns to master an F-1 car.

There are nights on an NHL sheet of ice when only Connor McDavid is a better skater than Nurse, and even more games where there isn’t a tougher, meaner fighter on the ice.

What Nurse is trying to become, however, is more subtle. He wants to be today’s version of a Chris Pronger: a player who can catch you in the defensive zone with his feet, take the puck away with his physicality, and then make a play using his skills.

All of that requires the right decision-making and considerable hockey sense, which brings us to the areas where Nurse has had his critics.

Scouts we texted with on Monday now see his patience, a definite uptick in his decision-making, and mostly agree that he has the physical tools to be an Olympic candidate. But the mental side? He’ll have to prove himself on that front between now and the new year.

Tippett, of course, would love to see Nurse in Beijing. Because he knows the player who would return to Edmonton would be better than the one who left for China.

“I’ve been involved in two Olympics and a bunch of world championships, You go to those things and you learn. Whether you’re young or old, you learn from the top people,” Tippett said. “I’d love to see him to make that team, just for the knowledge and the confidence that would give him.”

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Nurse has heard all the critics. But there’s only one thing: he’s harder on himself than any of them.

“My Dad (Richard, a former Hamilton Tiger-Cat) came from a football background, and they’re all coached hard — especially back in the day,” Nurse said. “When I’m taking notes, I’m not looking for all the positives. I’m looking for more than the negatives.

“That’s how you improve.”

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