Now established as Oilers' #1 d-man, Darnell Nurse in strong position as contract talks heat up

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2021 Edmonton Oilers in review
Darnell Nurse

The time has come for Edmonton Oilers stalwart Darnell Nurse to “get paid”, and for once timing is on the workhorse rearguard’s side.

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Twice since his Entry Level Contract expired in 2018 has Nurse signed a two-year bridge deal, in large part because his team didn’t have sufficient cap space to work out a long-term pact. But the most recent of those is set to expire in one year, exactly at the point Nurse would in theory be becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent and eligible to enter the open market. The thinking in most corners (including this one) being the Oilers would look to lock him up long term once the negotiation window opened up this summer.

But in recent weeks, a handful of comparable mid-career defenders have signed massive extensions that have raised the stakes into the previously unlikely realm of $9+ million per season.

  • Seth Jones signed an 8-year deal at $9.5 per season after being traded to Chicago Blackhawks
  • Zach Werenski signed a 6-year extension with Columbus Blue Jackets at an Annual Average Value of $9.58 million
  • Dougie Hamilton signed the richest contract on the first day of free agency, inking a 7-year pact at $9.0 million per season with New Jersey Devils

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There are subtle differences among the three. Both the Jones and Werenski contracts were negotiated a year in advance and won’t kick in until 2022, as would be the case with Nurse. Hamilton’s takes effect immediately. Only Werenski’s deal covered so much as a single year of restricted free agency, otherwise all three deals cover what would have been UFA years. Thus the big tickets.

Less comparable are a couple of other massive deals signed by emerging rearguards Cale Makar (6x $9.0 million with Colorado Avalanche) and Miro Heiskanen (8 x 8.45 million with Dallas Stars). Both were coming out of their Entry Level contracts and were several years away from unrestricted status, so their circumstances are significantly different than that facing the Oilers and Nurse today. Nonetheless, both deals serve notice that the cost of signing important defenders in the modern NHL continues to go up, up, up.

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And make no mistake, Darnell Nurse is an important player for the Edmonton Oilers. His emergence began in the final season of his ELC when his boxcar stats of 82 GP, 6-20-26, 67 PiM, +15 led Edmonton defenders in all six categories.

That summer there was talk of locking him up long-term in perhaps the $5 million range, but with the $100-million Connor McDavid extension about to kick in and extensive commitments already in place for Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom and lest we forget Milan Lucic as well as the ubiquitous Dead Cap, the cap space simply wasn’t there. Nurse briefly held out at the beginning of camp before agreeing to a two-year bridge at $3.2 million that proved to be a value deal for the Oilers. Same went for the first year of the two-year, $5.6 million extension he signed in 2020.

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But the value contracts during RFA seasons are done, and Nurse is now in position to command full freight going forward.

Let’s look at some selected stats, primarily at even strength, for the three years since his initial ELC ran out:

  • Note: some mobile device users may need to click the “View on Edmonton Journal” tab at the bottom of this post to see the graphics, which are a central element of this article. 

The red integers are NHL rankings, which consistently place Nurse within the top 10 of the league for raw totals, and within the top 30 (= “#1 defenceman”) even after those are parsed on a rate basis to factor out his enormous workload.

Over his first bridge deal Nurse largely played behind Oscar Klefbom, who led the Oilers in average ice time both years. That was in large part because Oscar ran the first unit powerplay both years, whereas Nurse was #1 in even-strength minutes per game both years. Moreover, he comfortably led Edmonton in actual minutes played each year because he was much more durable, last missing a game way back in the 2016-17 season while Klefbom routinely missed time with his wonky shoulder among other ailments.

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By 2021 that shoulder resulted in Klefbom missing the entire season, resulting in Nurse becoming the unequivocal #1 defenceman on the club. He responded with an outstanding season, averaging a career high 25:38 while bumping up his minutes at both even strength and on the penalty kill. He led the Oilers in goals from the blueline for the fourth year in a row with an impressive 16 (second in the entire league), doing most of his damage at even strength. He ranked first among NHL defencemen in even-strength goals with 15, and tied for second in even-strength points with 29.

Nurse primarily played on a potent five-man unit that included a new D partner in Tyson Barrie and a forward group of McDavid, Jesse Puljujarvi, and one of Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It was a high-skill group to put it mildly, and also a high-event one that saw plenty of action at both ends of the ice. Per 60 minutes of the Nurse-McDavid combo on the ice, the Oilers and their opponents collectively averaged over 70 shots and more than 7½ goals. Some interpreted the high “against” numbers as an indicator of poor defence from the likes of Nurse (not to mention Barrie and that particular group of forwards). My takeaway was that the game was simply played at a higher tempo on their watch resulting in shots and goals at both ends occurring at a more frequent rate.

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Nurse himself has always been a proactive player who is more inclined to attack the play than to let it come to him. That said, there were welcome glimpses throughout 2021 of the big rearguard taking advantage of the time and space available to him to protect the puck and make a safe outlet pass rather than forcing the issue. That’s been a long time coming and remains a work in progress, but these were promising signs all the same.

Nurse’s season came to a premature but nonetheless impressive end when he logged an amazing 62:07 of ice time in the triple-overtime affair in Winnipeg. That included 32½ minutes in extra time, nearly 70% of sudden death. Alas, it wasn’t 100%, and ultimately the game-winning goal was scored while Nurse was taking a quick breather on the bench. He fell just 3 minutes short of the league record held by (wait for it) Seth Jones but in a much longer game that extended to the fifth overtime period.

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Speaking of Jones, let’s return to the group of defenders bulleted above who recently joined the $9 million club. Here’s how Nurse compares to that group in terms of deployment, both last season and over the last 3 campaigns.

Nurse has been the most durable of the group, not missing a single game in that time while the others have all missed 20+. Their deployment within games is fairly similar across the board — big minutes in all situations. Nurse has seen the least powerplay time of the quartet, a detail which in theory at least was expected to keep his cost down due to fewer “free points” with the man advantage.

Perhaps that will yet come into play in the negotiation. This observer had been expecting a fairly swift negotiation with an over/under AAV of $8.0 million, with an upper limit of the same $8.5 million that Draisaitl commands. But that eight-year pact was signed four years ago, and things have changed, especially lately.

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My new takeaway is that a deal will indeed get done, and soon, but the price tag is likely to be even steeper than many had feared due to the changing market. Perhaps Nurse will take a bit of a hometown discount to stay in a situation where he has become an inner-core player with high-powered contemporaries (and friends), but let’s just say he’s in a strong negotiating position in an era where “true #1 defencemen” don’t come cheap.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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