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Nov 06, 2022  •  November 6, 2022  •  4 minute read

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Oct 26, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) reacts after scoring against the St. Louis Blues during the first period at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 26, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) reacts after scoring against the St. Louis Blues during the first period at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports Photo by Jeff Curry /USA TODAY Sports

Darnell Nurse is playing the best hockey of his National Hockey League career just now for the Edmonton Oilers.

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Nurse’s timing is excellent. He’s in the first year of an eight-year deal with an $9.25 million cap hit, seventh highest for all NHL d-men.

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After years of being underpaid, Nurse risks being overpaid this year, which would bring out loud and unrelenting criticism in a salary cap and performance-obsessed hockey market like Edmonton.

Such a contract can be a heavy weight for some players, even a curse at least when it comes to their reputation and peace of mind.

But 12 games into the 2022-23 regular season, Nurse is skating as well as he’s ever skated, moving the puck adroitly, defending smartly and making better decisions than ever at both ends of the ice. He’s always played a high event game, with some bad but usually more good, but he’s been cutting down on his misreads and missteps this year.

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At age 27, having played almost 500 NHL regular season games, there’s a welcome maturity and assuredness about his game. He’s not running around looking for the big hit. He’s not charging up the ice in spectacular fashion only to lose the puck behind the opposition net. And he’s not often getting on the wrong side of his check in the defensive zone.

Nurse isn’t exactly Doug Harvey, the Montreal Canadiens ace famous for sitting in the rocking chair in the defensive slot and letting the game come to him, but he’s a steady and true Grade A No. 1 NHL d-man, who you can count on to shut down the opposition’s top players at the key moment.

Highly-ranked for years now

He’s reached a new height here, even as he’s been one of the NHL’s best d-men for a few years now.

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I rank NHL d-men with a simple statistical cheat code, essentially gauging their play by how much their own coach trusts them with ice time in key situations (even strength, short-handed and over-time), and how well they perform on the attack (their points scoring rate at even strength and power play).

One proof of any statistical analysis is whether it passes the smell test. Using this systems — these metrics and nothing else — it tells us Viktor Hedman has been the NHL’s best d-man from 2018-to-2022. Next best, Devon Toews and Roman Josi. Also in the Top Ten are Kris Letang, Adam Fox, Brent Burns, John Carlson, Aaron Ekblad and Jaccob Slavin, with Cale Makar ranked 11th for that time period.

Does that list pass the smell test for the last four years? If not, I’m open to seeing your own list of stats that will come up with a better representation of the NHL’s top d-men.

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And Nurse, where does he rank?  Fourth overall in this time period, 18th from 2018-20, then second in 2020-21 and ninth last season in 2021-22.

His numbers put him in impressive company.

We have only a small sample size of games this year, but so far Nurse ranks 14th overall for even strength minutes and 27th overall for even strength scoring.

At the Cult of Hockey, we do intensive work to come up with fairer and more accurate reads on players. We review video of all goals and Grade A shots for and against and ascertain which players made major contributions to Grade A shots for and major mistakes on Grade A shots against.

I see Grade A shots as the heart of hockey, the most crucial event in game, so I want to know who is helping the Oilers create them and who is responsible for causing Grade A shots against.

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Defencemen like Nurse, who face a heavy flow of top notch opponents, the Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kanes of the NHL, take on a massive challenge when it comes to avoiding mistakes on Grade A shots. Top attackers have the speed, skill and smarts to quickly beat any d-man, even the very best, which is why coaches try to have only their most solid d-men out there to face them. If other Oilers d-men — second or third-pairing players — faced the same competition than Nurse does, they would most certainly have a far higher rate of major mistakes on Grade A shots against than Nurse.

But this year Nurse has a low rate of such mistakes, the lowest rate for d-men on the team, an impressive improvement and excellent accomplishment.

Last year Nurse made 177 major mistakes in 1501 even strength minutes, 1.77 per 15 (about one game of ES play).

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This year he’s made just 18 in 235 minutes, just 1.15 per game.

Only Evan Bouchard is close, 1.16 per game, but Bouchard isn’t yet facing the toughest competition. Markus Niemelainen is also close at 1.26 major mistakes per game, but he’s only facing bottom-line competition.

Nurse’s strong play here is all the more encouraging because he was a shadow of himself in the 2022 playoffs due to injury.

Suffice to say, if Nurse continues to play this well all year, it will be massive for the Oilers. If he can play like this in the playoffs, he will help drive a deep, deep, deep run towards the Stanley Cup.

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