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FEATURE: The Good Doctor

Darnell Nurse, with his growing charisma and leadership, played a big part in further fostering culture and success in the Oilers dressing room during the '19-20 season

by Jamie Umbach / EdmontonOilers.com

EDMONTON, AB - Darnell Nurse wouldn't be consulting his crystal ball for any fortune-telling on how the Oilers season might unfold the morning of the '19-20 Home Opener.

But he's always possessed that little bit of magic in his personality.

"If I had a crystal ball? I mean, isn't that what you guys got?" Nurse joked to the media in the Oilers dressing room. "You guys have the crystal balls, no?"

Video: LAK@EDM: Nurse buries strong wrister on the rush

To his teammates and coaches, the aptly-known 'Doc' has always rolled with an affinity for the fashionable and the charismatic, whether that's rocking a freshly-tailored suit pre-game or entertaining fans and teammates in his Oilers silks during warm-ups.

The product of Hamilton, Ontario and former seventh-overall pick by the Oilers at the 2013 NHL Draft is one of the few that has the desire, and the ability, to balance the many preferred genres of the entire Oilers dressing room as Team DJ - a role he's either shared or owned outright since his '15-16 rookie season thanks to his love for music.

"He's always had that kind of charisma and that kind of leadership," Connor McDavid, Nurse's former roommate, said earlier in the season. "That's just how he is; he's a leader whether he likes it or not. He likes that role, does a great job with that role and I know all of his teammates love him."

Nurse's capability of capturing peoples' eyes and attention gives way to a team-first focus during team meetings, practices and games as a key piece for a young Oilers leadership core that, amid plenty of off-season change, came prepared to put another year of experience to good use during the '19-20 season.

"You look around the room as you go through Camp, there's been a lot of change in the systems and the personnel," Nurse said. "But there's been a lot of growth within the group. There's a lot of excitement within the group and we know what we're capable of. That starts with our work ethic."

An individual drive and collective care for his teammates epitomized leadership for a new head coach in Dave Tippett, who awarded Nurse the rank of assistant captain at the onset of the campaign.

"He means a lot to this group," Tippett said. "You look at the guts of the game, he's around it for us. He can be an emotional guy and stand up for teammates and he can be a guy that can drive really big minutes and do well in it."

Video: EDM@TOR: Nurse goes top shelf with wrist shot

Nurse saw career highs in plenty of offensive categories in '18-19, setting new personal bests for goals (10), assists (31), points (41), powerplay points (9) and shots (196) while clocking in with his highest-ever average time on ice (23:49).

His defensive prowess and 6-foot 4, 221-pound frame would serve as the focal point of a new shutdown pairing of Nurse and Adam Larsson assembled by Tippett, tasked with limiting chances from opponents' big lines and embodying a new team philosophy centred on reducing goals against.

"Any time you hear 'goals against' as a d-man, that hits home with you," Nurse said. "First and foremost, that's our job: to try to keep pucks out of the net.

"I look at myself as someone who needs to be better in that department."

Nurse, often the spokesman for adversity over an 82-game schedule during his pre- and post-game media avails, was dealt an early blow in Game 1 of the new season on October 2 as both he and the Oilers were forced to work around the loss of Larsson to a broken right fibula in their 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

The next-man-up mentality elevated rookie Ethan Bear to an opportunity alongside Nurse, and the partnership proved productive.

From Game 2 onwards, the pair flourished thanks in large part to the leadership that Nurse was able to pay forward from his early years establishing himself on the Oilers blueline. Bear benefitted from Nurse's constant communication and guidance as the rookie began sewing the stitches of a breakout campaign.

"He's learned it from good people, and now he's helping younger players," Tippett said of Nurse. "But the younger players, it's easy to say that to them but they need to see you do it. Darnell is a doer. He gets in the gym, he practices, he focuses. He's trying to get better every day. 

"A young guy like Bearsy with him like that all the time, that's a big part of the leadership."

In addition to Nurse's growing leadership abilities, he was excelling offensively. The then 24-year-old scored in back-to-back games during an early-January road swing for the Oilers that swooped through Boston and Toronto, notching the game-winning goal against the Bruins before burying one top shelf on the Maple Leafs in front of friends and family at the Scotiabank Centre two nights later.

Above all, however, the team was seeing success.

"That's the way we need to play each and every night," said Nurse post-game in Boston. "Not always are you going to be in the position where you're in the lead going into the third period, but the way we played in the third was simple and direct."

Video: EDM@BOS: Nurse takes lead in final seconds of 2nd 

A two-year contract extension in February underpinned Nurse's value to the club in leadership and production, while exemplifying the blueliner's commitment to winning in Oil Country with the teammates to which he's assembled a tight-knit bond.

"We want to win," he said. "I came in with a few guys in this room that feel like brothers. Our goal is to win here."

"Hopefully we can work on something 16 months from now but it's good to get this one."

Now, like everyone else, Nurse is left biding his time for a resolution on how the NHL will resume its schedule and the Oilers can compete for that they set out to achieve at the beginning of the season - make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.

"It's kind of conflicting because, as players, this is our job and all we want to do is play," Nurse said. "I'd play in front of no fans in a heartbeat if someone told me we could keep playing."

But the hypeman of the dressing room and assistant captain knows it wouldn't be the same without the Oil Country faithful in the house.

"We have a very loyal fanbase who comes out and supports us each and every night, who's been hungry for us to be in the position we're in. You want to reward them by being able to play in front of them."

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