Oscar Klefbom is set to return from injury against the Flyers on Saturday. When Klefbom went down, that created an opportunity for Darnell Nurse to take over as the team’s #1 defenceman. I wrote an article about how we were about to find out what we have in Darnell Nurse at that time. His level of success during Klefbom’s injury is a strong indicator of just how high his ceiling his because he is nearing that magical 300 NHL games played number, which is usually when you know what you have in an NHL defenceman.
We can’t say that coach Hitchcock held Nurse’s minutes back at all. The strategy was not to distribute the minutes more evenly amongst the entire D group. He averaged 26:50 in ice time per night during that stretch. He played in all situations. In addition to leading the defence group in even strength ice time (as he did when Klefbom was healthy), he took Klefbom’s spot at the point on the top powerplay unit, and he continued to play on the penalty kill as well.
How did he do?
For starters, he got 13 points (2 G, 11 A) in those 19 games. That equates to a 56-point pace over a whole season. That is a massive uptick in his production compared to what it was before the injury (35-point pace), and a quantum leap ahead of his 26 points from last season. We can look to his powerplay time as the reason for that increase in production. He got 5 points on the PP (all assists). All of his points before the Klefbom injury came at even strength. His 8 points at even strength in those 19 games still equates to a 35-point pace over a whole season.
The Oilers powerplay went 11/48 (22.9%) while Nurse was on the top unit. One of those goals was scored by the scarcely used 2nd unit (Lucic vs Calgary). We can credit Nurse for being 10/48 (20.8%) on the powerplay. The Oilers are at 21.1% on the powerplay for the season. I believe that it’s safe to say that the powerplay wasn’t really affected by the loss of Klefbom or by Nurse taking over on the top unit. As for what my eye saw, I would’ve liked to have seen Nurse shoot the puck from the point more rather than simply defaulting to McDavid. We could say the same thing about Klefbom though. Part of that is because of the fact that the Oilers continue to run the powerplay through McDavid on the right half-wall with a lefty on the point, which makes one-timers very difficult. That’s a whole other conversation. Nurse could have been a bit more confident with his decision making in the offensive zone on the powerplay, but the results weren’t really different than they were with Klefbom on the point.
His +/- was a -1 during those 19 games. That included a 4-game stretch where he was -10. That also included a 5-game stretch where he was +8. A negative number means that he was on the ice for more goals against than goals for, which is obviously not what you want. However, we would be hard-pressed to find many guys who were + players during a 19-game stretch where the team went 6-12-1. +/- is a flawed stat because defence is a team thing, and a guy can be credited for a – when it was someone else who made the mistake, and he can be credited for a + while having done nothing to contribute to the goal. However, -1 on a team that was playing that poorly isn’t horrible. He did struggle at times, but he was really good overall during that stretch.
I don’t pretend to be an analytics guy. I think that while there is merit to analytics, they don’t tell the whole story. Stats that use the contributions of the group as a whole to measure the success of an individual are flawed. I believe that any stats involving shots for or against or goals for or against are similar to +/- in the fact that the player in question may or may not be directly responsible for the shot or goal in question. For example, a player whose Corsi is below 50% may be that low because the coach gives him more defensive zone starts, because the team is consistently getting out-shot or out-played, or because his partner sucks. It could also be because the player in question sucks, but I would need more evidence before simply assuming that is the case. If a guy’s fancy stats are BRUTAL, I could accept that as sufficient evidence that he sucks; but I would look to analysis like the guys over at the Cult of Hockey do where they break down individual contributions on high quality scoring chances for and against each game for a clearer picture of how good or bad a player does defensively. We would have to ask David Staples, Bruce McCurdy, or Kurt Leavins for a breakdown of how Nurse fared with high quality chances for and against during Klefbom’s absence.
Nurse has now played in 247 NHL games. If he stays healthy, he will have played 279 NHL games by the end of the season. It may be a tad early to start making proclamations about what Nurse’s ceiling is, but we are quite close to that time. Personally, I don’t see an elite top-pairing defenceman in Nurse. He is a good skater that can carry the puck up the ice himself, but he lacks the puck moving ability to be utilized as a true #1 defenceman in my opinion. I also feel that he doesn’t bring his A-defensive game consistently enough to be a #1 D. I would say that his ceiling is as a #2 defenceman, but that wouldn’t be the ideal place to slot him in on a championship team. I think that he is a great guy to have on a 2nd pairing. Having Klefbom and Nurse as your top 2 left-handed defencemen is a pretty good situation to be in. I can see the group of Klefbom, Nurse, Larsson, and Bouchard becoming one of the better top 4 groups in the league in a few years. I just hope that the incoming GM sees it that way too.