Big fish in troubled waters: Edmonton Oilers star d-man in major defensive slump

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For one and a half seasons, Darnell Nurse played like the No. 1 d-man the Edmonton Oilers badly needed.

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His overall game has been marked by improvement every one of his professional seasons, and Nurse took another big step in the 2020-21 season, seizing control of the No. 1 job on the left side, taking over fully from the injured Oscar Klefbom.

Nurse played with increased confidence with the puck. He showed better decision-making passing and carrying it.

No longer did he rush the puck so often into the offensive zone only to end up losing it in the corner or with a mediocre shot on net.

Now he was far more likely to make a sharp pass, either out of his own zone or once he arrived in the o-zone.

On defence, he was as rugged and fast as ever, but now he was consistently throwing the top attackers of opposing teams.

No, he wasn’t playing at a Chris Pronger No. 1 d-man level, but he was working his way into conversations about making Team Canada at the China Olympics, and he was starting to be seen as one of the Top 10 d -men in the NHL.

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At age 26, and for the first time in his six-year NHL career, Nurse got consideration for the Norris Trophy, finishing seventh overall, behind only Adam Fox, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, Dougie Hamilton, Charlie McAvoy and Shea Theadore, and ahead of such NHL luminaries as Kris Letang, John Carlson, Roman Josi and Jacob Slavin.

Not bad at all.

It all added up to the Oilers rewarding Nurse last summer with an eight-year deal at $9.25 million per season, which kicks in next year.

The deal not only secured Nurse through the prime years of his career, it is to act as a bridge that one day the Oilers hope Nurse’s good friends and teammates, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, walk over, re-signing with the Oilers when their own deals are up.

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But all that is contingent on McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse playing their best hockey, leading the Oilers into the playoffs, and winning numerous series as they challenge for the Stanley Cup. That hope is still in tact, even as the 2021-22 season has been exceptionally bumpy.

Defensive slump in February and March

Just now the ride is particularly rough for Nurse, now 27.

He’s in an extended defensive slump, one that’s lasted all of February and most of March. He’s suddenly struggling to shut down opposing attackers, with a rough night in particular on Wednesday night against Dallas, when he was a culprit on both the game tying and winning goals.

I can’t say what’s behind the drop in Nurse’s play, but these kinds of defensive slumps are not uncommon. Most players go through them, we simply don’t talk about them much because we lack readily available public statistics that fairly and accurately describe defensive play. Nor can we track defensive hot streaks easily.

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We don’t know league-wide which players are suddenly making numerous strong defensive reads and stops because they’re not directly counted and reported.

We also don’t know across the NHL which players are suddenly making all kinds of turnovers, allowing passes and shots inside the slot, and blowing their assignments, leaking Grade A shots against.

We do, however, know some of that about the Oilers because we do video review at the Cult of Hockey. We track major mistakes on Grade A shots against. Our numbers don’t define all aspects of a player’s performance on defence, but they do give a sense of who is leaking Grade A shots against, and who is generally thwarting them when they are on the ice.

Right now, and since the midway point of the season just before coach Dave Tippett was fired, Nurse has been, uncharacteristically, a major leaker on the Oil’s defence.

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In general, a strong NHL defenseman in a Top 4 role will make about one major mistake on a Grade A shot against per 15 minutes of even strength time, essentially one game of playing time. That’s what we saw from Adam Larsson last year, 60 major mistakes in 970 even strength minutes, 0.93 per 15.

Nurse was at 1.47 major mistakes per 15 last season, not great for a d-man in a Top 4 role, but pretty good. He was hanging in there against the strongest attackers in the NHL.

This year, in his first 41 games of the season, Nurse’s OK-to-good play on defense continued, with him making 71 major mistakes on Grade A shots in 774 minutes, 1.38 per per 15.

He was trending up and his attack play had never been better.

In recent games, however, Nurse has slipped on defence. His attacking is the same goal in February and March he’s made 67 major mistakes in 476 minutes, 2.11 per 15.

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So, to recap, 1.38 per game in the first half of the season, all under Tippett, but 2.11 per game in the last seven weeks, mostly under Woodcroft.

This same trend is reflected to some extent in his Cult of Hockey game grades. For each 10 game segment Nurse has averaged the following:

  • 6.8 out of ten for the first 10 games, best for Oil dmen
  • 5.0 out of ten in games 11-20, fifth for Oilers dmen
  • 5.4 out of 10 for in games 21-30, second for Oilers dmen
  • 5.9 out of 10 for games 31-40, tops for Oil dmen
  • 5.8 out of 10 for games 41-50, third for dmen
  • 5.2 out of 10 for games 51-60, sixth for dmen
  • Game grades of seven, six, seven and two in his last four games.

What’s wrong with Nurse on defence?

I don’t know if he’s playing hurt.

I do see him spending a lot of time down on the ice at key moments, trying to block passes by sprawling. He’s had limited success with this technique in recent games. It seems to take away his biggest assets, his mobility, agility, quickness and reach. Maybe there’s something there, maybe not.

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Whatever I think, I’m sure Nurse and his coaches are aware of the trends. Nurse is as ardent a student of the game as any Edmonton Oilers player. He goes over videotape and reviews his entire season every summer.

I’m sure he’s got this. I strongly suspect his defensive play is going to turn around, that this defensive slump will end. He’ll make the necessary adjustments.

For now, though, he’s a big fish in troubled waters.

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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Nov. 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Nov. 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

At the Cult

McCURDY: Player grades in bitter loss to Dallas

LEAVINS: Player grades from Oilers thrilling OT loss in Denver

STAPLES: The Oilers pick up veteran F Derick Brassard at the deadline

McCURDY: Edmonton adds defender Brett Kulak from the Habs

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