'Take a deep breath': Evolution of Darnell Nurse one bright spot for Oilers this season

In a sports-crazy city where every hockey fan is an expert and social-media critics fire a constant barrage of 140-character rants, one promising background story has been the slow and inexorable evolution of defenceman Darnell Nurse.

'At the end of the day, it all comes down to team success,' says rising star on the blue-line

Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse (25) carries the puck with Carolina Hurricanes' Justin Williams (14) in pursuit during an NHL game in Edmonton on Oct. 17, 2017. (CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

In a sports-crazy city where every hockey fan is an expert and social-media critics fire a constant barrage of 140-character rants, one promising background story has been the slow and inexorable evolution of defenceman Darnell Nurse.

Fourteen games into the Edmonton Oilers' substandard season, with playoff hopes in jeopardy, Nurse has quietly gone about the business of growing into the role thrust upon him.

Promoted at the beginning of the month to play in the top pair beside Adam Larsson, Nurse has looked more comfortable with each passing day. Over the past three games, two wins and a loss, the youngster has averaged 22 minutes against the toughest opponents.

Safe to say he has come a long way in a relatively short time.

The coaching staff has noticed, and rewarded his play with added responsibility.

Asked recently about Nurse's progress, coach Todd McLellan began with the obvious and moved on from there.

"He's a year older and a year wiser," McLellan said. "He's always been a great athlete and been able to do basically anything in any sport. But he's getting to his jobs quicker. He has the ability to join the rush and recover well. He looks more confident, in my opinion."

'He's still young in his evolution'

Earlier this month, McLellan hit on the key word to explain his player's progress.

"I think he's done a very admirable job of entering the [offensive] zone and creating for his teammates," the coach said. "That's an area that can still improve. But again, he's still young in his evolution of being a full-time NHL defenceman."

Evolution. The word that best describes the growth and development that can turn a prospect into something much more.

After his first game on the top pair, Nurse was reluctant to talk about himself, given the team had just lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2.

"The biggest thing, I think, that I've done this year is that I get the puck and take a deep breath and make a play," he said. "Not try to force things.

"At this point, there's a lot of positives I can look back on. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to team success."
Detroit Red Wings Anthony Mantha (39) scores a goal on Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot (33) as Darnell Nurse (25) defends during third period action on Sunday at Rogers Place. (CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

According to popular wisdom, it takes about 300 games for a young defenceman to fully adapt to the speed of the NHL.

Not the skating speed, necessarily, though that's part of it. What really matters is that plays unfold much more quickly in the NHL. Defenders have to make quicker decisions, about whether to join the rush or stay back. They have less time to move the puck in the defensive zone.

Nurse has played a total of 129 games in the NHL. It's not a lengthy resume.

For the most part, it remains to be seen just how far he can go, how good he can be.

But the early returns, especially this season, have been mostly positive.

Nine defencemen drafted in first round

Drafted 7th overall in the spring of 2013, Nurse was among a class of nine defencemen taken in the first round that year. Some are ahead of him in their development, some are behind.

Seth Jones, now with Columbus, was drafted 4th that year. Rasmus Ristolainen was drafted 8th by the Buffalo Sabres, one spot behind Nurse.

Those two are, so far, the standouts from that group. Both were born in October and turned 23 last month. Nurse won't turn 23 until February.

Jones made an immediate transition to the NHL and played 77 games in his draft year for the Nashville Predators. He played 82 games the next year, and partway through the 2016-17 season was part of a blockbuster trade that sent him to Columbus in return for first-line centre Ryan Johansen. The move helped both teams.

Nurse took time to grow into NHL regular

Ristolainen split time his first year between the Sabres and the American Hockey League. He became a full-time NHL defenceman the next year and soon became the Sabres top blue-liner. He has 286 games under his belt, with 25 goals and 90 assists.

The rest of the D-class of 2013 appear to be behind Nurse on the development scale.

Unlike Jones and Ristolainen, Nurse did not arrive in the NHL as a teenager.

His first real season with the Oilers came in 2015-16, when at age 20 he played 69 games and averaged 20:14 of ice time. He had 120 shots on goal and 160 hits. He scored three goals and had seven assists.

His development was slowed the next year by an ankle injury at the beginning of December that cost him almost three months. He played a total of 44 games that season and saw his ice time drop by three minutes. The one bright spot, perhaps, was that he continued to shoot the puck, averaging two per game, and was rewarded with five goals.

For those who believe in advanced stats, Nurse may be on the verge of a breakout year.

For those who don't follow such things, let's stick a toe in the water.

A look at the advanced stats

Corsi is an advanced statistic that measures shot attempts, both for and against, at even strength. It includes shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shot attempts. Dividing Corsi For by Corsi Against gives you a percentage. Fifty would be the average for a player who was on the ice for as many shot attempts for as against.

Got it? If not, never mind.

The point here is that Nurse currently ranks 14th in the NHL with a Corsi For Percentage of 60.24. That's a very high number that shows he helps tilt the ice in the Oilers favour.

The statistic also speaks to Nurse's development over the past three seasons. That progress looks like this:

  • 2015-16, Corsi % 45.67
  • 2016-17, Corsi % 51.05
  • 2017-18, Corsi % 60.24

NHL stats monkeys also track scoring chances for and against, and what are called "high danger" scoring chances for and against.

Again, the stats are expressed as percentages, and Nurse has steadily improved in both categories. That improvement looks like this:

  • 2015-16, scoring chances for, 45.84%, high-danger chances for, 41.75%
  • 2016-17, scoring chances for, 50.64%, high-danger chances for, 50.00%
  • 2017-18, scoring chances for, 61.67%, high-danger chances for, 62.92%

None of this is intended to argue that Nurse is without weaknesses. All players, especially 22-year-olds, have weaknesses.

A major mistake by Nurse in his own zone on Sunday against Detroit led directly to the Red Wings third goal.

One of the most encouraging things is that Nurse recognizes his shortcomings and knows what the team expects from him over the long run.

"I'm definitely growing into it," he said of his added responsibility. "But I've got to continue to grow, continue to get better, and be a difference maker night after night."

Follow Rick McConnell, who covers the Oilers for CBC Edmonton, on Twitter or contact him via email at rick.mcconnell@cbc.ca


Rick McConnell has worked as a writer and editor in Alberta for more than 30 years.


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