Are the Oilers defense (already) better than last season?

Mike Smith and Darnell Nurse Defending Oilers' Goal (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Mike Smith and Darnell Nurse Defending Oilers' Goal (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /
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Darnell Nurse #25
Darnell Nurse #25 (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images) /

Starting with the one we are all excepting to excel even more this season, Darnell Nurse has everything on his hands again to be the one who will lead the Oilers’ defense and take the role as a top defenseman, not only on the team, but in the whole league.

Unfortunately, last season he had to deal with a torn hip flexor injury who allegedly happened in the last week of the regular season, but was only published to the media after the end of the playoffs.

"Nurse said that he suffered the injury in the final week of the regular season and was trying to play through it in all three series. “Our medical staff… taped it up, gave me some anti-inflamm’s and away you go,” Nurse said. “There’s no excuse when you get to this point in the season. You want to be on your game and play at a certain level. There’s no excuse. Everyone’s banged up this time of year. And myself personally, I wanted to be better in this series. It’s just added motivation for summer to come back and be a difference-maker next year.”"

And even with the top defenseman playing with an injury, the Oilers was still able to reach the Western Conference Finals, eliminating teams such as the Los Angeles Kings and the Calgary Flames. If we get to see him playing with his full capacity, the post-season story can be even better than last season.

But we can’t talk about Nurse and don’t talk about one of the main motivators that we expect to see him excel at next season: His contract. With the 8 years, 74 million contract (9.25 million AAV) starting this season. At the moment, Darnell is the second highest cap hit of the Oilers, only behind Connor McDavid (12.5M AAV) and yes, he earns more money than the 2019-20 Hart Memorial Trophy and Ted Lindsey award winner Leon Draisaitl (8.5M AAV).

He knows exactly the role the franchise wants and believes he can perform on ice, by giving him 10.4% of the cap hit, in a movement comparable with names such as Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky, and even can remember Chris Pronger’s contract in 2005-06, in percentage of cap hit

"Priciest Oilers D, in 2020-21 dollars: 2005-06: Chris Pronger – $13.06 million 2022-23: Darnell Nurse – $9.25 million 2007-08: Sheldon Souray – $8.75 million 2008-09: Lubomir Visnovsky – $8.05 million 2015-16: Andrej Sekera- $6.28 million"

"Nurse’s new contract doesn’t pay him to be Pronger; he’s not even in the ballpark, really. Nor is he comparable to former partner Andrej Sekera, the big defensive free-agent splash of Peter Chiarelli’s tenure and a distant fifth in the cap-era race of expensive Oilers defencemen."

In today’s numbers, good comparisons with other defense players would be Seth Jones from the Chicago Blackhawks (8 years, 9.5M AAV until 2030), Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators (8 years, 9.059M AAV until 2028) and even Dougie Hamilton from the New Jersey Devils (7 years, 9M AVV until 2028).

In theory, the Oilers paid to have Nurse until 2030, when he will be 34 years old. He has the potential to fulfill the expectations in this Oilers’ defense, we can only hope this amount of money and confidence will be worth.

But who will play alongside the one who is expected to be the best defenseman of the team. It’s a real possibility to see the 22 years-old Evan Bouchard getting more minutes as he evolves his abilities on ice, but to start we should see the same as last year, with Cody Ceci being his partner.

And don’t get me wrong saying that he could be replaced by Bouchard. That wouldn’t happen because Ceci isn’t good, but it would by how Bouchard can be great with time. Cody has been good, not extraordinary, but good, and that’s exactly how the Oilers expect him to be.

With Darnell Nurse on his line, it’s not his responsibility to be the top defenseman. And yet, even arriving last year and already facing some coach changes, he just had one of his best career seasons with the Oilers.

In 78 regular season games, he scored 28 points with 5 goals and 23 assists. And in the playoffs, he had 7 points in 16 games, with 1 goal and 6 assists, and a plus minus of +4, even with the weak defense the Oilers had and Darnell Nurse being injured, he played great, averaging almost 20 minutes per night and had his best playoff numbers so far.

With that in mind, we can only expect he’ll be even better next season, especially playing with a healthy Darnell Nurse, having one of the most powerful offenses of the NHL and especially with a full season of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson. The 15th pick overall of the 2012 draft can still evolve even more on defense and be one of the most important players of the team, as noticed in the next quote,in the Oilers Nation preview of him:

"What’s important to note, however, is how much of an improvement he saw under Woodcroft. His GF% and xGF% rose from 46.03 and 49.10, respectively, under Dave Tippett, with those same numbers rising to 50.88 and 54.70 by seasons end. Most notably, his goal share with Darnell Nurse, his most common linemate down the stretch, rose from 46.2 under Tippett, to 64.2 under Woodcroft — a huge improvement."