Like the player, hate the contract. That’s the basic consensus of Oilers fans regarding the eight-year veteran defenseman taken 7th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. Darnell Nurse will be entering the second season of his notorious eight-year contract paying him $9.25M per season. Is he overpaid by at least $2.5M or $3M? Yes. Is he a bad player? No. But we sometimes view overpaid and bad as meaning the same thing.
This season, Nurse played in all 82 games and put up a career-high 43 points. 39 of them were at even strength. Out of all 235 points in his 559 NHL games, 196 are at even strength. It’s really impressive to get that kind of offensive production from a blue liner with virtually no powerplay time, other than the last ten or so seconds of a man advantage after the top PP unit goes off. If he were a regular on that PP, this 40-45 point defenseman would suddenly be a 60-65, maybe 70-point defenseman. Then perhaps he would be worth the deal he signed, and it wouldn’t be that much of a polarizing topic. Add to that his 992 career blocked shots, 164 of them from 2022/2023, and being a three-time King Clancy Trophy nominee for his charitable works within the Edmonton community. And it takes an absolute warrior to play three Playoff rounds with a torn hip flexor like he did in 2022. So then, what is with the contract? Why is it big and bad? Why was it agreed upon? Perspective matters.
In February of 2020, a whole month before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nurse re-signed with Edmonton on a two-year, $11.2M bridge deal paying him $5.6M per season. In the 56-game bubble season of 2021, he dressed for every game and put up 36 points. In an ordinary 82-game season, he’d have been on pace for 53 points that year, surpassing his actual career-high mentioned earlier. The Ottawa Senators finished second last in the all-Canadian division and 23rd overall in the league. The Vancouver Canucks finished last in the all-Canadian division and 24th overall in the league. The games still need to be played, and players still need to be productive, no question. But point totals can get inflated when you play more than five games against the same bottom feeders. During that offseason, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski were also getting new contracts. I know some fans don’t like hearing about “the market,” but the contracts given to Jones and Werenski did dictate how much Nurse was getting. You don’t have to like what the market was; I don’t either. But you should still take into account that Nurse is very tight with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Those two have their say in some of the on-ice decisions that Ken Holland makes as GM, and you’d better believe they want to keep their trio of friends together. The negative I will point out is that rather than trying to re-sign players for a longer term, signing too many bridge deals eventually leads to a much bigger salary cap anxiety, even for Cup contenders. We’re seeing that with Evan Bouchard’s expected bridge deal right now.
Nurse did struggle defensively before the Mattias Ekholm trade, that much we can admit. He either didn’t know whether he wanted to be a defense-first player or thought he could do a Paul Coffey impression and looked pretty mediocre. And while I just praised him for his shot blocks, there have also been the odd times where I thought he overcommitted to a block and put himself out of position. Not only was Ekholm a great veteran partner for Bouchard, but having him take over top minutes helped Nurse calm his game down a little. Remaining paired with Cody Ceci may not be a successful experiment but I’ve heard that he was playing through nagging injuries this season. I’ve never read exactly what they were, but maybe a healthier Ceci rejuvenates the chemistry he and Nurse had in the 2022 Playoffs. If reports of his injuries are true, I still wonder why Jay Woodcroft insisted on keeping that struggling pair together, as the team’s top pair, no less. Nurse can be a very good second-pair defenseman on most teams but is paid like a top-pair Hall of Famer. Ceci can be a solid third-pair defenseman, but having him and Nurse as the top pair, even when healthy, was based mostly on a small sample size from the season before. I’d rather see Holland trade for a top 4 right-handed defenseman to partner up with Nurse, and that would put Ceci in a more comfortable #5 or #6 role. But that is another topic for another day, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing such a trade anyway.
This past week, Nurse appeared on an episode of Mitts Off, a podcast hosted by former NHLer and former Oiler Luke Gazdic. In the episode, they talked about Nurse starting up as a rookie with the Oilers while Gazdic had been a veteran enforcer on the team. Of course, the big contract was going to be a topic of discussion. Even amongst friends and former teammates, why would it not? Nurse gave the typical hockey player answer and alluded to expecting pressure when you play, especially in a Canadian market. But Oilers fans also took notice of one particular soundbite. “I feel like I get blamed for everything from a goal against to the traffic on Stony Plain.” He was trying to say that playfully and jokingly, but it’s very easy in the social media era to take quotes out of context.
The Darnell Nurse that fans were first acquainted to was more about defense first, throwing hits, and chirping the opposition. He still does the latter two, but also mentioned in the podcast how he felt more freedom to be more offensive when Ken Hitchcock was the head coach for a short period of time. For a coach like Hitch, with a team defense history, I was pretty surprised to hear that. With a full season of Mattias Ekholm upcoming, we should expect more positive results from Nurse’s play. I don’t know how many hockey fans like comparisons, but Ekholm is the type of defenseman Nurse should be and the type that I actually think he was always supposed to be. Mostly defense, but can chip in for points from time to time. I didn’t write this article because I blindly defended Nurse’s contract. Again, I don’t. And again, perspective matters.
Would a cheaper contract extension have given the team more affordability for other players? Absolutely. But do the fans that wish we could trade Nurse want to risk making 97 and 29 unhappy? I don’t recommend it. I’m looking forward to what he can do now with, as mentioned earlier, 82 games of Ekholm, a full-time PP quarterback Bouchard(please hurry up with that contract), as well as Vincent Desharnais, now being a full-time regular after making an impact on the penalty kill when he came up from Bakersfield. Nurse said he always embraces pressure, but he may appreciate having at least some pressure taken off of him.