Matheson: Oilers' Nurse struggling to find the right mix in his game

It’s been an uphill battle for the veteran Oilers defenceman, but the team needs him to find his game if they want any chance of beating Dallas in this series

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Your best players have to be your best players at this time of year as we all know, and Darnell Nurse hasn’t been.

His stats in a whole world of hurt, bleeding minuses at -12 through 15 playoff games.

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That’s the rockiest number of any defenceman still playing, with Florida’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson next at -4. There is some blame game here for Nurse, but not every goal that Nurse has been on the ice for is his fault. It’s been guilt by association in several cases

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The Edmonton Oilers defenceman had a shot go off his skate and by his goalie Stuart Skinner in Game 1 of the series against Los Angeles.

He had another off his foot that pin-balled right to Tyler Seguin for an empty netter in Game 1 of the Dallas series. He was on the ice when Jason Robertson got the winner in the third period on Skinner in the blue paint in Game 3 as Nurse went down to block a possible pass to Roope Hintz. Paying the price for being at the scene of the crime.

Going back farther, he got a minus when Elias Lindholm scored from the goalline on Skinner in Game 1 against Vancouver and when Nikita Zadorov scored from a bad angle and when Conor Garland faked a shot and slid it through the goalie’s legs in the third period.

Some of those add up to being on the ice for 18 goals against at even-strength in the three rounds of playoffs and just six goals against five-on-five. The math clearly needs adjusting. If you’re Evan Bouchard and his partner Mattias Ekholm and playing extremely well, playing with Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman and either Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Leon Draisaitl, you’re going to be pleasantly plus on that side of things.

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“Sometimes you’re soaking up minuses on goals you had nothing to do with in the play…it could be your partner or the forwards you are out there with,” said Oilers’ coach Kris Knoblauch.

“I take plus-minus with a grain of salt.

“But there’s more with Darnell, he can play better.”

Or smarter. It’s tough to overlook that trip on Wyatt Johnston with just over four minutes left in a 4-3 game Monday night, which meant the available time for the comeback was cut in half. His game management, for a veteran, was certainly off there.

“With Darnell, it’s playing on instincts. I don’t know if there’s anybody who is as quick and can get around the ice like him. He closes plays off. That’s his strongest attribute and that’s something he has to be doing every shift,” said Knoblauch.

Dallas Stars forward Wyatt Johnston  battles for the puck against Edmonton Oilers forward Darnell Nurse during the first period in Game 2 of the Western Conference final at American Airlines Center on May 25, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Matthew Stockman /Getty Images

Nurse has to be much more of a consistent, positive force if the Oilers are to get past the Dallas Stars. When he’s on, he’s direct, he’s physical, he’s moving the puck fast and well. He’s very hard to play against, choking off attacks and stopping the cycle. The Oilers need to see more of that and right now.

Yeah, we know that Nurse’s $9.25 million cap hit is a lightning rod in Oilers Nation. They like the player’s attributes, plus being your own homegrown, first-round draft pick, but not the eight-year contract.

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He got that contract after two bridge deals ($3.2 million AAV and $5.6 million AAV),  and was one year from unrestricted free agent status. He was also part of the inner core with McDavid and Draisaitl, and defenceman around the league that were comparable like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski signed for a shade more.

Nurse was also coming off a very strong Covid shortened 56-game season, where he put up a career-high 16 goals and almost 40 points.

The cap hit is something that Nurse carries around like a baby grand piano, but this is the Oilers fiscal issue not his. They just need a better Nurse on the ice, never mind worrying about pay day, with the series in the balance. Either with Vincent Desharnais as his partner or Cody Ceci.

He has played with Desharnais most of the playoffs but Desharnais has been struggling — he couldn’t get a clear in a scramble before Wyatt Johnston’s goal made it 3-2 Dallas– and Knoblauch switched back to Nurse being paired with Ceci during the 5-3 loss on Monday.

Nurse played 7:30 with Desharnais and close to nine minutes with Ceci in Game 3.

“Just like when we change the forward lines, sometimes it’s the defence, too,” said Knoblauch, who will likely go back to the Desharnais-Nurse partnership to start Game 4.

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“Things hadn’t been going well in the second period (Game 3) and we needed to change some kind of rhythm and flow. I felt that maybe that (shuffling pairs) was the best way to do it.”

Which brings us to an outside view of Nurse.

“When he’s playing really well Darnell gets the plays stopped,” said an NHL management observer, who has watched the Oilers throughout their 15 playoff games.

“When he’s played kind of nervy, then he checks the guy, then comes back and rechecks him and he’s out of control. He has to get the play killed, stay on the one-on-one (battle) and get the play sealed off.”

Nurse is always in the battle — his competitive temperature is high — but in these playoffs his performance has vacillated. The Oilers need the simple, close off plays, often with ill-humour Nurse. He’s done that as a cycle buster, separating man from puck, often with a snarl. That’s what he does best. Plus-minus aside, as screwy as it can be, he’s a core piece, who has simply to play better.

“Darnell’s a really competitive guy. He has to just calm down and get the one-on-ones stopped and then hold position, rather than trying to do everything defensively. Sometimes he’s trying to win the one-on-one and skate the puck up ice. He has to focus on killing it, and support maybe comes in for the puck,” said the observer.

Bottom line?

The good Nurse can be the prescription for what ails the Oilers today, in critical need of a win to tie the series 2-2.

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