When it comes to references, Darnell Nurse can count on superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to positively gush about his contributions to the surging Edmonton Oilers.
“I don’t know if anybody works harder at his game, off the ice, on the ice, video, you name it, he does it,” said McDavid, who assisted on Nurse’s game-winning goal in overtime Monday in a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. “It’s an absolute credit to him how far he’s come.”
Draisaitl echoes those sentiments about a guy whose name is suddenly in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, as the NHL’s top defenceman, and the Canadian roster for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
“Nursey always had an enormous ceiling just by his physical ability,” Draisaitl said. “And he’s added so many things on the offensive side with the puck on his stick. He’s finishing plays. He’s setting plays up. He’s been outstanding for us all year. Obviously, we’re very lucky to have him.”
Lucky might not be the best word. In a league where No. 1 defencemen are nearly impossible to acquire via trade, the Oilers have developed their own elite blueliner through years of patience.
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At 26, Nurse is rounding into the defenceman Oilers fans dreamed of when Edmonton picked him in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2013 NHL draft.
The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Nurse initially built his reputation as a physical defenceman with the ability to out-muscle the competition along the boards and in front of his own net.
But this season, Nurse has quietly added “minute-munching offensive threat” to his portfolio.
The Hamilton, Ont., product — and brother of Canadian women’s basketball star Kia Nurse — leads all NHL defencemen in goals this season with 12. He is among the top-10 in scoring by defencemen with 27 points.
‘He always had it in him’
Playing an average of 25:37 per game, Nurse enjoys the fourth highest ice-time in the league on a pairing with Tyson Barrie.
“Offensively, maybe that wasn’t his strong suit at the beginning,” McDavid said of Nurse. “But he always had it in him. He’s really starting to understand certain plays and when he’s getting chances, he’s putting them away.
“It’s been fun to watch him grow into the player that everyone thought he could be.”
The Oilers needed Nurse to evolve into a No. 1 defenceman this year, with veteran rearguard Oscar Klefbom out with a chronic shoulder injury.
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“Coming into the season I wanted to show that I could be an impact player every night, someone who can be leaned upon on the back end,” Nurse said. “There’s a big void that needs to be filled and I wanted to show that I was capable of stepping into that role and being a presence each and every night.”
Nurse has been known for his smooth skating since his days playing junior in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. But this off-season, he decided to see if he could improve by working with power skating instructor Michele Moore.
“I worked a lot on edges and stops and starts,” Nurse said. “I felt there was another gear I could get to — there was another level of my skating I could get to, especially coming in and out of the corners.
“I put a lot of hours in watching the game and seeing where I could be better, and that was one of one of the areas I felt I could take a big stride.”
Consider it done. In fact, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett sees Nurse as the perfect role model for young hockey players everywhere with a desire to up their game and realize their potential.
“You like to see guys that put the work in and are passionate about getting better,” Tippett says. “You like to see them get the results.
“There’s a lot of young players who should look at what he’s doing and realize that’s how you get better.”