We’re About to Find Out What Nurse Is

On Saturday, the Oilers announced that Oscar Klefbom will be out for the next 6-8 weeks after undergoing surgery on his broken fingers, which were the result of being hit with an errant slap shot in Denver last week. Klefbom has been having a career-best year so far. He has 15 points in 31 games (40 point pace), and he has been playing 25:25 per night, which is good for 8th most in the league. Klefbom’s injury is a big blow to the Oilers defence.

With injury comes opportunity. In this case, Darnell Nurse is the recipient of the opportunity to fill in on the top pairing. That idea in itself isn’t new for Nurse, as he routinely played with Adam Larsson on the top pairing in Klefbom’s absence last season. Nurse has already been getting a lot of even strength minutes (19:33/game compared to Klefbom’s 19:44) and penalty killing minutes (2:12/game) this season, but the real opportunity for Nurse is to see time on the 1st powerplay unit. This will be the first stretch where Nurse will have contributed in every aspect of the game. His coach believes that this is a positive thing for Nurse. Hitchcock said that Nurse plays better the more he’s on the ice, similar to Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis.

In the short term, I have no doubt that Nurse will fill in capably on the top pairing. In the big picture, Nurse has now played in 230 NHL games. He will have played in 279 games by the end of this season if he remains healthy. The old saying goes that you know what you have in an NHL defenceman once he has played 300 games. The next 6-8 weeks will be quite telling about what we have in Darnell Nurse. We are about to find out if he can be a top pairing defenceman, or if he is better suited as a strong 2nd pairing defenceman going forward.

Last season, Nurse led the Oilers blue line with 26 points. Some people believed that Nurse would be capable of scoring 35 points this season. He has 14 points in 33 games so far, which would put him at 35 points over the course of a full season. Now, that includes a bit of a heater in the last 6 games where he has 5 points. Prior to this hot streak, he had 9 points in 27 games (27-point pace). With this 6-8 week stretch where he appears poised to continue getting powerplay time, he could end up in the mid 30s for a point total, which would be fantastic. Regardless, his offensive productivity has improved from last year’s career-best total. However, his defensive game has been questionable for the better part of the season thus far. That part of his game definitely showed regression from where it was last season. He has been much better since Klefbom went down against Colorado. The Oilers will need him to continue his strong play if they want to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot during Klefbom’s absence.

Klefbom is also approaching that magical 300 games played mark. He will get there later in the season (health pending). I believe that Klefbom is a legitimate top pairing defenceman, albeit not an elite one in the NHL. What would happen if Nurse proves to be another legitimate top pairing defenceman? The Oilers could then have two top pairing guys on the left side. Add Evan Bouchard to that mix next year, and you have 3 defencemen that are capable of scoring 35+ points each (yes, I believe that Bouchard could score 35+ points as a 20-year old rookie next season). With Adam Larsson in there as a reliable shut down defender, the Oilers could have one of the best young top-4 defence groups in the league next season. That would be the most desirable of the options in my opinion. Having the top-end depth for situations like the current one would be ideal.

Bouchard will be an Oiler next year, which means that one of the current top 6 group (Klefbom, Nurse, Larsson, Russell, Sekera, or Benning) would need to be moved to create a roster spot. If both Nurse and Klefbom are indeed top pairing defencemen, one could consider trading one of them for scoring help. The defence would then look like this for next season if Klefbom were to be traded (assuming no injuries):

Nurse-Larsson
Russell-Bouchard
Sekera-Benning

That looks significantly weaker than the group including Klefbom. Both Sekera and Russell have NMCs that will be modified to allow a trade to be facilitated starting in July. Moving Sekera would be the best move for the Oilers, but it will be a tough contract to move (especially if he comes back and struggles again this season). There will be some strong scoring wingers available via free agency this summer, most notably Artemi Panarin and Mark Stone. There is also a collection of prospects that could be moved in a package for a scoring winger. My point is that while it might be tempting to move Klefbom or Nurse for scoring help, there are better moves to be made this summer.

My personal belief is that Nurse will be better suited as a 2nd pairing guy in a really strong top 4 group here in Edmonton. That will be the case as long as Klefbom is here. He might prove me wrong and show that he can be part of a 1A/1B scenario on the left side of this defence. I’ll be all for it if he does prove me wrong. We’ll find out over the next 6-8 weeks.

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