Oilers have big problem in the present and future with struggling Darnell Nurse

EDMONTON — Paging Dr. Knoblauch: The Edmonton Oilers are hemorrhaging with Darnell Nurse on the ice and they need someone to stop the bleeding. Stat. Or it’s going to be a Code Blue on their Stanley Cup playoff run.

Because they’re now trailing in this best-of-seven Western Conference Final against a Dallas Stars team that when they get rolling has been tougher to stop than a freight train downhill. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights.

There is no shortage of questions in Oil Country after Monday night’s sobering, 5-3 loss that saw the Oilers cough up another two-goal lead. How exactly did Jason Robertson score that fourth goal on Stuart Skinner? Why didn’t Knoblauch call a timeout to try to halt the momentum? And if the Oilers knew there was going to be pushback from the Stars in the second period, why did they seem so ill-equipped to handle it?

They are all fair questions. But perhaps the largest looming: How do the Oilers solve their Nurse problem?

There is both a short-term and long-term problem. In the here and now, Nurse is seemingly at the center of everything bad happening in Edmonton’s end.

Nurse, 29, is a shell of the guy we saw in the West Final just two years ago. The simple play can be an adventure. He struggles with gap control on the rush, but he also routinely allows inside body position on the opposition forecheck, opening the door for chances against and further sustained pressure.

Sometimes, plus/minus is a poor indicator of play. Sometimes, it paints a very accurate picture, as it has for Nurse these playoffs.

Nurse is the leader for the Green Jacket in the playoffs with a minus-12 through 15 playoff games. That minus-12 is more than the minus leader from the other three still-standing playoff teams combined: Chris Kreider (-5), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (-4) and Joe Pavelski (-2).

Edmonton has been outscored 21-10, these playoffs with Nurse on the ice. He’s been on for 18 goals against at 5-on-5, while the next closest player in the playoffs has been on for 12.

The Oilers’ coaching staff is grasping for solutions. Midway through the game, Knoblauch and Paul Coffey moved Nurse from playing with Vinny Desharnais back to Nurse’s usual runningmate in Cody Ceci. Nurse skated 7:34 with Desharnais and 8:54 with Ceci and was on the ice for Dallas’ go-ahead goal and the game-winner – one with each partner.

“Just like when we change the forward lines, sometimes the defense also,” Knoblauch explained in making the swap. “Things hadn’t been going well in the second period and we needed to change some kind of rhythm and flow, and I felt that maybe that was the best way to do it.”

Edmonton shouldn’t have to attempt to insulate a $9.25 million defenseman, but that is the spot they find themselves in during their quest for Stanley. Nurse’s minutes are down from 23:02 last year in the postseason to 19:38 this year. It’s possible that Knoblauch opts for Philip Broberg to make his 2024 playoff debut over Desharnais to try and combat the Stars’ speed, but Oilers management has always preferred size over skating.

Some of Edmonton’s other questions could solve themselves. Skinner actually had one of his better games of the playoffs. Knoblauch isn’t a big timeout guy, but he called one of the best in the playoffs so far in Game 7 in Vancouver. And even though they appear to be slow learners, the Oilers have proven that they do seem to learn their lessons – even if it’s the hard way.

Therein lies the rub for the Oilers, the long-term problem. There’s no easy way around this one. Nurse has a full six years and $51.6 million remaining on his deal. 

He landed his eight-year, $74 million contract in August 2021 amid a perfect storm of events. Nurse was coming off a 16-goal, 36-point campaign in a 56-game shortened all-Canadian bubble year. Seth Jones ($9.5 million) and Zach Werenski ($9.58 million) both signed extensions in the month prior, deals that are still high-water marks, and the Oilers were probably worried about what Nurse would cost if he repeated those same numbers over a full season.

Nurse was the Oilers’ unquestioned No. 1 defenseman. Then Edmonton traded for Mattias Ekholm, who has fit like a glove, and knocked Nurse off the first power play and penalty killing units. Coupled with the emergence of Evan Bouchard, Nurse has wandered into no-man’s land on Edmonton’s back end.

What is he? The only clear answer to that question right now is overpaid.

Connor McDavid reminded after Game 3 that playoff series can be short. That is what the Edmonton Oilers are staring down now. It feels like we’ve arrived at a crossroads – in this series, in Nurse’s tenure in Edmonton. Adjustments are necessary.


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