EDMONTON — It’s understandable to look at the way Darnell Nurse played Thursday night against St. Louis, think about $9.25 million and eight years, and want to scream or pull your hair out if you’re an Oilers fan.
There’s no question Nurse must play better. But the more important thing to consider is how the team put itself in this position and what can be done to better the situation for all involved.
Nurse played one of his worst NHL games Thursday, magnified by those two costly turnovers — one that caused the score to be tied with 19.1 seconds left in the third period. Rightly, he owed up to his mistakes, feeling like he — and he alone — was the reason the Oilers lost in a shootout 4-3 rather than won in regulation.
However, it’s unreasonable to suggest he should be scratched (when there really are no other options to replace him) or have his ice time drastically reduced.
“In the past, I’ve used terms like ‘sequence of events,’ in terms of maybe leading to a reduction in ice time,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “What I would say about a veteran player is that, through shared circumstance and experience at this level, there might be a bit more rope in that situation.”
The Oilers have hitched themselves to Nurse. He has a no-movement clause in the first season of his eight-year contract and isn’t going anywhere.
That massive extension signed last August raised a lot of eyebrows and, though it set up Nurse and his family for life financially, immediately put him in the crosshairs for criticism.
There were two reasons the Oilers lost to the Blues in a shootout on Thursday. One was a disallowed goal in overtime. The another were Darnell Nurse’s turnovers.
Connor McDavid was perturbed about the former. Nurse was annoyed about the latter. My story:https://t.co/kR5eB4Y96A
— Daniel Nugent-Bowman (@DNBsports) December 16, 2022
Nurse had just had the best season of his career in 2020-21, filling in wonderfully for Oscar Klefbom by leading all NHL blueliners with 15 even-strength goals. He piggybacked off the mega contracts signed by Seth Jones in Chicago and Zach Werenski in Columbus and hit the jackpot.
Management didn’t want to risk losing Connor McDavid’s pal the next summer and ponied up. Naturally, Nurse took the money — as any person would. He should have been locked up by the Oilers years earlier at a cheaper rate.
Former GM Peter Chiarelli was the first to err. He bridged Nurse to a two-year, $3.2 million AAV contract in September 2018.
Current GM Ken Holland was next. Cap room was tight because of albatross deals handed out by Chiarelli like the one to Milan Lucic (seven years, $42 million) and Mikko Koskinen (three years, $13.5 million). Still, with right-wing depth non-existent, Holland prioritized a four-year extension to Zack Kassian in January 2020 and had to bridge Nurse again a couple of weeks later. That two-year, $5.6 million AAV contract walked Nurse right to unrestricted free agency.
Klefbom’s probable career-ending shoulder injury, Nurse’s fine play in the truncated campaign, and the Jones and Werenski pacts gave Nurse all the leverage in the world when it came time to negotiate.
It was a contract that looked gargantuan from the moment it was signed.
That’s the case even though Nurse is the Oilers’ No. 1 defenceman, the type of player who’s so valuable to a team when he’s on his game.
He can play physically. He can kill penalties. He’s so fit that he can play for as much as his coaches need. He can skate well enough to handle jetting forwards and play with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at three-on-three in overtime. As he did a few years ago when Klefbom was sidelined and Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard weren’t in the picture, Nurse can quarterback a power play in a pinch.
For all those important skills, Nurse isn’t in that top tier or two of NHL defencemen. He’s a cut or two below.
There are times when he’s probably asked to do too much.
Nurse played 29:03 of a 65-minute game against the Blues. The coaching staff tasked him to do more when Philip Broberg was benched in the third period after a defensive miscue. Broberg played just 8:17 in the game — and only 1:55 on three shifts in the final frame and, naturally, nothing in overtime.
“There are errors of commission and errors of omission. If you make errors of omission continually, that’s when I think you see a larger reduction or a pullback (of ice time),” Woodcroft said. “That’s in conjunction with experience levels.”
That’s been a common theme for the left side of the Oilers’ defence this season.
Broberg is averaging 12:25, but in-game mistakes have resulted in reduced ice time. At least his leash is longer than the one Markus Niemelainen had. Niemelainen averaged 9:44 in 15 games before his demotion to AHL Bakersfield last month. Ryan Murray skates 13:07, but that’s when he plays — which hasn’t been for 12 games.
Woodcroft would prefer the No. 3 left-side blueliner play 13 or 14 minutes. That’s a not something he’s been able to get with much frequency.
Brett Kulak plays 18 minutes a game, but it’s clear Nurse is the anchor of that left side. He averages 24 minutes of ice time.
It’s become clear there’s a pressing need for the Oilers to upgrade the defence.
For now, Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson are trying to make the best out of the current state of affairs.
“Our job as coaches is to get the most out of the people in front of us,” Woodcroft said. “I don’t know if you’re asking that question (about the roster makeup) if we execute with 30 seconds left.”
Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s what happened.
Highlighted by a game like Thursday’s, the requirement should be to enhance the left side to alleviate some pressure off Nurse’s shoulders.
That means ruling out the Ducks’ John Klingberg, someone the Oilers are considering — according to colleague Pierre LeBrun.
Acquiring Klingberg would have to come at the expense of Barrie because of cap reasons and roster redundancy. It would also force the Oilers to move out more than Barrie because his hit is $4.5 million and Klingberg’s is $7 million — even if just until season’s end. That also limits management’s ability to make much-needed improvements elsewhere to the lineup. I’m told the Oilers also have concerns about the way Klingberg defends — which seems like a huge red flag for a team that already has that problem.
Moving to that left side, LeBrun also mentioned the Canadiens’ Joel Edmundson as a potential target for the Oilers. In a perfect world, they would find someone who could at least push Kulak for second-pairing minutes if not supplant him entirely. That would ensure there’s more cover for Nurse. Is Edmundson that guy? It’s far from a certainty. The Oilers would have to be sure, especially since Edmundson has a $3.5 million cap hit for this season and next with a 10-team no-trade list.
The smarter play would be to acquire Vladislav Gavrikov, a 27-year-old pending UFA who’s filling in on the Blue Jackets’ top pair with Werenski sidelined. I’m told the Oilers have considerable interest in this player in a lesser role, although there could be a bidding war given his age, contract status and manageable $2.8 million cap hit.
And then there’s Jakob Chychrun who, when healthy, has the potential to be a wonderful addition to the Oilers. Chychrun could easily slot behind Nurse and even has the chops to push him for ice time. The Oilers would have to get a little bit creative to manage his $4.6 million cap hit. The thing is that cap hit is a bargain for any team and the 24-year-old having two more years on his contract after this one perfectly aligns with the Oilers’ contention window.
Because of his age and contract, Chychrun will be the most expensive player to acquire. Barring a sudden change of heart, the Oilers have no willingness to part with Broberg and likely not Dylan Holloway either. It’s hard to figure out how they can pull off a trade then.
They’re going to need to do something to augment the blue line — again, ideally the left side — before the March 3 trade deadline.
Despite their underwhelming 17-13-1 record, the Oilers are a win out of second place in the Pacific Division standings. Unless they colossally collapse, they shouldn’t be in any worry of missing the playoffs.
But merely making the postseason isn’t — and shouldn’t be — the goal for the Oilers, not with McDavid and Draisaitl moving into yet another offensive stratosphere and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman having career campaigns behind them.
There are other areas to supplement on this roster for management, but none is more glaring or important than the left side of the defence.
It would have been nice if Nurse’s cap hit was, say, $2 million lower and there was more room to work with. That ship has sailed, and that’s on management past and present.
Now it’s up to Holland and his staff. They have less than three months to ensure Nurse and the Oilers have more support there.
(Photo: Amber Bracken / The Canadian Press via AP)