Cult of Hockey: Scouts battle over whether Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse is ready for the NHL
One OHL prospects observer says it will be a mistake for Nurse to again play junior hockey
EDMONTON — Top Edmonton Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse thrilled observers with his skill and violence during the team’s intersquad game at rookie camp in Jasper earlier this month, but it’s still an open question whether the 19-year-old will make the National Hockey League this fall.
The matter will be decided in training camp, but it’s a subject of major disagreement right now between two scouts who closely follow Ontario Hockey League prospects.
Brock Otten, who writes for the OHL Prospects website, is so bullish on Nurse — a six-foot-four, 185-plus pound, left-shooting d-man who put up 50 points in 64 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2013-14 — that he says the player has outgrown junior hockey.
“He established himself as a dominant two-way defender,” Otten says. “He has the ability to squash the transition game because of how well he moves … It was very difficult for the opposition to win battles against him.”
Otten’s conclusion? “He’s ready for the NHL. … I don’t think there’s much more that the OHL can teach him. If he returns, I think it will be a mistake and the Oilers will risk him developing some bad habits out of boredom.”
But Mark Seidel, chief scout of North American Central Scouting, has fired back, arguing Nurse is best served by another year in Sault Ste. Marie.
“He has a tremendous physical skill set that only lacks strength at this point in time,” Seidel says. “He still needs to become more seasoned, and the opportunity to return to a great situation in Sault Ste. Marie would be perfect for that. He will have the benefit of learning from a great coaching staff, playing on a team that should be favoured to go to the Memorial Cup.”
Seidel also warned: “The NHL landscape has been littered with guys who have made the jump far too quickly, but I’m still waiting to find a case where a young defenceman was brought along too slowly and it hurt his career.”
Seidel expects the Oilers will keep Nurse in junior this year, and that’s a good bet. There’s certainly no imperative for the Oilers to rush Nurse. Edmonton has decent veteran depth. AHL vets Martin Maricin and Oscar Klefbom, two highly-skilled prospects, will compete for the sixth defenceman job. So if Nurse is to move up, he’s going to have to beat out Marincin and Klefbom, which is unlikely.
Seidel’s report on Nurse matches up with the promising but raw play Nurse displayed in the AHL playoffs this year. Nurse flashed tremendous speed but lost too many one-on-one battles and didn’t always read the game quickly enough.
The unhappy fact is that Nurse likely is ready to be a pro, but an American Hockey League pro. Ideally, Nurse would play the 2014-15 season for Edmonton’s top farm team in Oklahoma City next year. But Nurse’s future is bound by hockey agreements that state if he can’t make an NHL roster as a 19-year-old, he can’t play in the AHL and must play in the OHL one more season.
While I don’t agree with Otten’s take that it will be a mistake for Nurse to play in junior again, I certainly have seen the physical dominance that so impressed Otten. In the Jasper four-on-four game, Nurse seemed to be channelling his inner Eddie Shore. He looked like he’d packed on five more pounds of muscle and ten more pounds of mean since the end of the AHL playoffs. He hammered a few opponents so hard that a new dance move was developed during the contest, the Nurse Shuffle, where players were blasted into the boards, or hit and spun in circles, then wobbled off the ice not sure of their own first names.
It’s been some time since the Oilers have had such a menacing player on the team, but it’s crucial to note Nurse was doing it against other prospects, not against the hard men of the NHL.
If he can be that aggressive and that physical in training camp against older men, and if he continues to mature physically, it will be tempting for the Oilers to keep him around this fall, at least for nine games. But his ragged AHL playoff performance is a sounder marker of where his game is at right now, hence the likelihood he’s best served by another year of junior, where he can work on defensive positioning, shoulder checking and pinpoint passing and shooting skills.
Journal columnist David Staples is a regular contributor to the Cult of Hockey analytics blog
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