Why Edmonton Oilers need more from Darnell Nurse in Game 4

Frank Seravalli joins Evanka Osmak and Tim Micallef on Sportsnet Central to discuss why Darnell Nurse’s struggles could turn into a long-term issue for the Edmonton Oilers, why Stuart Skinner is the right netminder for Game 4, and more.

Darnell Nurse has the seventh-highest cap hit among NHL defencemen. Edmonton Oilers fans are painfully aware of that. (The “good” news is that Nurse’s $9.25-million cap hit will drop to eighth next season.)

There is no hiding the fact that Nurse has been a liability defensively during the Oilers’ playoff run. He was on the ice for two of the Dallas Stars’ four goals at 5-on-5 on Monday, bringing his total to 18 on-ice goals against at 5-on-5 in 15 post-season games. That is the worst mark in the NHL and more than half of the Oilers’ total goals against at 5-on-5 (34).

“Plus/minus is obviously a difficult stat to look at,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch told reporters Tuesday. “Sometimes you’re soaking up minuses when you had nothing to do with the play. … I take plus/minus with a grain of salt, but I think … (Nurse) can play better.”

Regardless of his partner, Nurse has been unable to help keep the puck out of the Oilers’ net. Nurse and Cody Ceci have been outscored 10-4 and generated 45.2 per cent of expected goals in 146:45 of 5-on-5 playing time. When Nurse has been paired with Vincent Desharnais, the Oilers have been outscored 7-2 and generated 46.5 per cent of expected goals in 83:35.

Of course, defence is a five-man job. But Nurse bears responsibility for those unsightly numbers. His ice time seems to reflect that, dropping from 18:21 per game at even strength during the regular season to 17:28 per game in the playoffs. (Overall, Nurse is averaging 19:48 per game in the playoffs — down from 23:02 per game last post-season.)

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Knoblauch does not have many options when it comes to tweaking his defence corps, because he is not going to touch the top pair of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard. On Tuesday, Knoblauch did not dismiss the idea of making a defensive substitution for the first time this post-season. (During the regular season, the Oilers rarely strayed from their top six defencemen, who combined to play more than 97 per cent of the total minutes on the blue line.)

“We’ve got a defenceman (who) we’re very confident in (who) we could insert, but we’re still considering what is best for us,” Knoblauch told reporters.

The defenceman in question is left-handed youngster Philip Broberg, who played nine playoff games last year in a limited role. (Right-handed veteran Troy Stecher will soon undergo ankle surgery, according to Jason Gregor of Sports 1440.)

A lineup change is not going to fix Nurse’s problems, though. The onus is on him to raise his level of play as the stakes continue to rise.

“It’s not necessarily on the pairs,” Knoblauch said. “It’s on guys finding their game.”

All stats via Sportlogiq

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