The night was full of cheering and celebrating last Friday as the Edmonton Oilers beat the Colorado Avalanche to clinch a third consecutive playoff berth. But near the middle of the second period, a rather innocuous play turned into something that may be much more significant to the long-term success of the team.
The Oilers’ number one defender, Darnell Nurse, dropped to his knee in a battle in front of the net. When he stood up, he appeared to tweak something as his leg sort of buckled underneath him.
Under normal circumstances, it isn’t even a play you’d think twice about. But after Nurse left the bench shortly after and didn’t return for the third period, red flags were raised that something might be wrong.
Originally, it was believed to be fairly insignificant and nothing the team was worried about. Elliotte Friedman suggested it was some time for rest and relaxation, he’d be back for the playoffs if not sooner. And although that is still the projected timeline, the team officially shut Nurse down for the regular season. With an added ominous and concerning tone.
The Impact on the Oilers’ Lineup
Nurse is by far the Oilers’ top defender who plays in every situation, every strength, and is relied on to eat up a lot of difficult minutes. Missing him for a few late regular-season games after clinching playoffs is one thing, but to not have him in the lineup for Game One of the playoffs will have a huge impact on the team’s performance.
Through 71 games played this season, Nurse is averaging just over 25 minutes of ice time per game. This is the most of any Oiler as well as the 12th most in the league. He averages 2:45 of shorthanded ice time per game, again the most of any Oilers player and 26th in the entire NHL. He is most often used on the second powerplay unit but still averages just over a minute per game of powerplay time. Lastly, he is the go-to option for defence on the team’s first overtime unit, near the top of the league with teammates Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Needless to say, the instant that Nurse is absent from the Oilers lineup, the team is left with a logistical nightmare trying to find someone to cover all of these minutes. At even strength, we’ll be looking at the team’s second pairing, Duncan Keith and Evan Bouchard, to move up and take on the number one pairing responsibilities. These two have been great, maybe even overperforming, as they have amazing possession numbers, hovering around 57% in Corsi and Fenwick for percentages and 64.1 goals for percentage. This is as a second pairing though, with different utilization and matchups. They are capable but the additional expectations on them as a first pairing might be difficult to live up to.
The penalty kills without Nurse is a bigger concern. Without him in the lineup, and with Cody Ceci already being on the first PK unit typically, the team has to turn to Keith for even more minutes or Kris Russell if he is in the lineup that game. The Oilers already struggle on the penalty kill. Through 80 games, they have a 79.5 PK%, good for 18th in the league, and fourth-worst of any playoff team.
The Oilers need their special teams to be in top form entering the playoffs, so without Nurse, they might find their penalty kill to be even more of a weak spot.
Reflecting on these past few paragraphs, it sounds like without Nurse in the lineup, Keith ends up taking on a lot of extra ice time and defensive duties. To me, this is concerning. He has been serviceable in a limited role through the season. But that’s been the key, limited.
Keith is currently averaging under 20 minutes of ice time for the first time in his career. With the general understanding being that he could no longer sustain a top pairing role and the minutes that go with it, it is always a bit nerve-wracking when he has to move back up the lineup.
Even if he is ready for the playoffs and this is just a huge overreaction, will he be at 100%? Especially with it being a leg injury that could affect his skating and agility. Those are some of the strongest parts of Nurse’s game. He uses his skating ability to join the rush offensively (one of the reasons he typically is used on the first overtime unit), as well as keep up defensively. Leg and knee injuries can be tricky and take a while to heal properly.
How do the Oilers Replace Nurse?
The final question is who would come up to replace Nurse’s spot in the lineup if he is unavailable? The most likely option is Philip Broberg. Although Markus Niemelainen is my preferred choice as he is a huge, physical, solid defender built for playoff hockey, he is currently injured and unavailable.
Broberg got his first taste of the NHL this year, playing in 22 games with the Oilers throughout the regular season. He is a player who more closely matches Nurse’s style as a bigger, all-around defender who skates well and joins the rush, maybe without the physical edge, however.
Regardless, even though early reports generally suggested Nurse’s injury was minor and nothing to worry about, the language used around the severity and return timetable for the defender is getting more vague and ominous. If he is not back or not 100% for the playoffs, the Oilers are going to be in tough trying to replace what he brings to the lineup. It will be a major hurdle to overcome if Edmonton has hopes of a deep playoff run this season.
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