Building off a breakthrough: Darnell Nurse

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

On a team as bad as the Oilers were last season, building on a breakthrough is never an easy assignment.

Yet defenseman Darnell Nurse managed to be one of few players not named McDavid or Draisaitl that were consistent despite the unsteadiness around them.

Let’s take a little look at what Nurse did last season:

• Set a career high in goals
• Set a career high in assists
• Set a career high in points
• Led the Oilers in even-strength ice time per game
• Led the Oilers in penalty kill ice time per game
• Second on the Oilers in ice time per game
• Led the Oilers in shifts per game
• Led all Oilers defenseman in points

… and a deep breath.

[Looking back at ’17-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Nurse took a big step in the right direction on a team that desperately needs to improve its rear guard. His average time-on-ice jumped over five minutes (22:15) from the previous season (he only played 44 games due to an ankle injury) and over two minutes from his rookie campaign in 2015-16 where he played 69 games.

Even more impressive, all 26 of his points last year came at even strength. Nurse’s point totals could increase if he eventually sees some power play time. He averaged little of that last season at just 29 seconds per game.

Nurse played tough minutes last year against the other team’s top lines and still came away with nearly a one point/60, a 51.11 CF% and a positive Rel CF%. During his rookie season, Nurse’s shot share was at 45.67, so he’s tightened up his game, even with the increase in minutes and quality of competition. He also lowered the number of shots against/60 by nearly two.

Furthermore, everyone is better with Connor McDavid on the ice, but without him, some of those numbers aren’t so great. Nurse isn’t immune to that decline, but he improved his CF% (48.09 to 49.74) and his GF% (40.54 to 46.25) without McDavid on the ice with him from 2016-17 to 2017-18, respectively.

Nurse still needs a contract for the upcoming season. He’s currently a restricted free agent on a team up against the cap and no money to pay him long-term at this point. Nurse, through his agent, has said he won’t sign long-term at the moment, opting to wait for more funds to open up to get a. paid more, and b. paid longer.

The Oilers certainly have some quality talent making its way up through the system in 2018 10th overall pick Evan Bouchard and Ethan Bear, who impressed in an 18-game stint with the Oilers at the end of last season.

General manager Peter Chiarelli said last week that the team plans on signing Nurse before the season starts.

For a team that’s been starved for good defensemen for a long time, and needs to let some of their up-and-coming prospects marinate a little longer, that seems like a wise choice.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

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