Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse has often been criticized by analytical minds for not being good enough in his own end(myself included). He’s had horrible defensive issues in the past, not being part of the solution for the Oilers, and absolutely the problem. Despite his defensive woes, he’s remained one of the best 5v5 play drivers on the back end. But last year, it was a completely different story for Nurse, who has been averaging a whopping 25 minutes and 45 seconds of ice time per night between the 2020/2021 season and the first 16 games of the 2021/2022 season. In most of those minutes, he plays great defensively. I don’t like using ice time as a stat to prove a defenseman’s competency, so let’s look at some raw stats.
What do the statistics say about Nurse’s game?
This year, Nurse has maintained a great 54.87xGF% at 5v5, up slightly from 51.45xGF% in the shortened 2020/2021 season. All of this despite playing significant time with Tyson Barrie, who is not exactly known for being good defensively. When you look at his numbers away from Barrie, it becomes very apparent just how crucial Nurse has been the last couple of years. When the Nurse/Barrie pairing is on the ice, the Oilers control just 49.43% of the expected goals, which are shots on net weighted for their location relative to the net and who’s shooting. All of these stats are from naturalstattrick.com. However, when you take all the time he’s played without Barrie the last 2 seasons, it shows a massive increase, at 55.76xGF%. Keep in mind these numbers are against other teams’ top lines.
There’s a fair criticism out there that Nurse’s numbers may be inflated by playing with the best player in the world, but that argument really has no merit when you look deep into the numbers. On the ice when Nurse is playing with any other defenseman than Barrie, the Oilers are controlling the majority of the chances, shots, and expected goals. This tells us not only that Nurse is a great top-pairing defenseman absolutely worthy and capable of playing half the game, but Barrie has been dragging him down. Not sure why Tippett continues to employ that as the top pair when there’s such a discrepancy between Nurse’s numbers with Barrie on vs Barrie off. The numbers don’t lie.
Who Could Replace Nurse? – Phillip Broberg
As the biggest Holland critic you can find, you’d be unsurprised to know I wasn’t thrilled when Edmonton took the chance on Phillip Broberg at the 2019 draft. The jury is absolutely still out on that pick, but it’s not looking good. Trevor Zegras is having a swell time with the Anaheim Ducks, and he went the pick right after Broberg. Peyton Krebs already looks like a competent top 9 forward in the NHL and may be looking at an expanded role on the Buffalo Sabres. But let’s not focus on that today. Broberg had an awful time in Sweden- on the ice, that is. He was a minus player on a good Skelleftea team, at points dropping down the depth chart as the 7th defenseman. There really are no numbers that would point to Broberg having a good impact on his team, but this truly seems like a coaching issue more than a player issue. Everywhere Broberg has played outside of the SHL, he’s shown amazing potential; In the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s minor league, at the World Junior Championship (when he was healthy), and now in the AHL. It’s no coincidence his point totals and on-ice shot counts skyrocket whenever he’s not playing for Skelleftea.
Broberg handles the puck at a truly elite level. He will likely play his first game on Saturday, and I’m sure fans will immediately understand what he does for the team. It’s almost identical to Nurse the way he drives the puck up the right wall in the neutral zone, and has the same excellent passing ability, especially on his backhand. He showcased his incredibly fast and agile skating last Thursday against the San Diego Gulls, the Duck’s AHL affiliate.
The pick was questionable at the time, and he never really was able to find his groove in the Swedish league, but Broberg is projecting nicely. We will see very soon whether the success he’s experienced albeit very briefly at the AHL level will translate to the NHL.
Who Could Replace Nurse? – Duncan Keith
Everyone knew Duncan Keith wasn’t what he once was when the Oilers made the trade to acquire him from the Chicago Blackhawks, even record book analyzer Ken Holland. But good god. This is not what anybody signed up for. Can Duncan Keith even come close to what Nurse brought to the table defensively? The short answer, and the one that will cost me the least amount of brain cells, is no. Keith’s goal share without McDavid on the ice is 42.11%. All across the board, you can see teammates playing in the top 6 have decreased xG counts whenever Keith steps on the ice. Keith is an effective bottom pairing defenseman, I will give him that. His numbers against the bottom 6 groups of other teams seem to be a slight improvement from his results against the top lines. The issue is, and especially now with Nurse out a minimum of 4 games and likely more, is that he just isn’t cut to play against high-level offensive players anymore. His passes seem to be 50/50 between finding a teammate perfectly or finding an opponent perfectly. He routinely gets burnt by any player going faster than an old lady in a school zone. Oilers coach Dave Tippett will look to him for better defensive play these coming weeks, and I have a feeling he’s going to let him down. But I’ve been proven wrong many times before.
Are the oilers in serious trouble?
The answer is yes and no. Edmonton has a weird history of players stepping up in the absence of major contributors. Just like how Nurse himself started to cement himself in the top pair when Oscar Klefbom went down with an injury in 2019/2020, somebody will step up. My money is on Broberg, but just him stepping up won’t be enough. Everyone’s minutes, not just on the left side, will be increased. These next couple weeks, though the Oilers thankfully only have to limp through at most 6 or 7 games without their number one guy, will shape the future of the Oilers defence. Does Broberg translate his success to the NHL immediately, and prove to be the top 4 left-shot defender the Oilers needed? Or will Keith prove us all wrong, and show he’s got something left in the tank? Regardless, a true test for the defensively shallow Oilers has just begun.