When the Edmonton Oilers hit the ice for training camp, their young prospects will face the challenge of making the cut heading into the upcoming season. The seventh-overall pick in 2013, Darnell Nurse is sure to be one of the young players who makes it a hard decision for the coaching staff whether or not to send him back to junior or allow him to begin his NHL career.
Nurse, 19, is in Jasper at Orientation Camp with his fellow Oilers prospects, trying to get a head start on making an impression on the Edmonton coaching staff.
“It’s always exciting when the camps come around,” Nurse said. “It’s probably the best time of the year when the hockey starts to fire up again and the excitement starts to grow. I think everyone who plays hockey is really anxious to get the season back and I’m no different.”
Nurse did an excellent job at delaying his return to junior during last pre-season. But in the end, he returned to Sault Ste. Marie and had a 50-point season (13-37-50) for the Greyhounds. He then got his first taste of professional hockey with the Oklahoma City Barons towards the end of their season and into the playoffs.
Now Nurse’s focus returns to his goal of making the Oilers and beginning what should be a successful NHL journey. His summer has revolved around that goal.
“It’s been a good year,” Nurse said. “It’s been a lot less chaotic without all of the draft things going on. It’s been nice just to stay around home, work out there everyday and get into a good routine where I really push myself on a daily basis, doing the right things on the days off to continue my growth.”
Nurse says he works out every day and gets on the ice a few times a week as well. He has put on muscle mass as well. He played at about 190 pounds during the season and says he is at 205 now.
The 6-foot-4 defenceman says maybe playing in the NHL last season wouldn’t have been the best thing for his development. But he’s closer to being ready now.
Photo by Getty Images
“I think I’m close. I can’t say that I’m not close. I’ve been pushing myself this year definitely to different lengths than I have in the past. My goal is to be ready when September comes and I’m just going to be pushing every day to get to that point.”
The Oilers haven’t made it an easy path to achieving those goals. They added a few solid NHL defencemen in the off-season in Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne, as well as Keith Aulie. Couple those acquisitions with the returning crop of defencemen getting one year more experienced and it’s an uphill battle for a rookie to crack the lineup.
“This is the NHL,” Nurse said. “That’s the teams, the general managers and everyone’s jobs to make the team better. I’ve been drafted here and my job is to get as ready as I possibly can and develop on a daily basis. That’s my main focus.”
Having this kind of competition will be good for Nurse and all of the young players in the Oilers system who are still fighting to establish themselves in the league.
“There needs to be competition,” Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins said. “We don’t want to be handing spots in an NHL lineup to players who haven’t earned it and by default. They need to battle. The other thing is that they need to be ready. I think when you rush players in you’re setting them up for failure and we don’t want to do that.”
Eakins says Nurse playing junior last season was the best decision for him.
“Last year, Darnell wasn’t ready. It was a tough day for Darnell. I still remember it vividly, sending him back. These players are very young, they’re inexperienced and we want to protect them right now and at least we can give them a fair shake in training camp. If they’re not ready then they’ll go back, if they’re ready they will stay. It’s that simple.”
Not rushing the young players is a serious emphasis for the Oilers brass. These young prospects have high ceilings and bright futures. Rushing players like Nurse into the lineup before they are ready for the NHL grind does their development no favours.
“We’ve talked about giving these players time to develop and doing what is best for these players,” Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish said. “It’s not necessarily what is best for the hockey club based on personal selfish needs. I think we’ve got to have a better longer term view of this on how we develop this and we’ve got to be in a position as an organization and we haven’t been… Now we’re in position that we’re getting more and more depth so we’re able to let the players decide whether they are ready to play and that’s an important step.”
Obviously Nurse wants to be in the NHL now. But the key piece to the Oilers future also understands that the team will make the choice that is best for the player’s development. That means it rests on Nurse’s shoulders to prove he is ready to make the jump.
“I think everyone wants to play as fast as possible,” Nurse said. “There’s always limitations. Playing last year probably wouldn’t have been what was best for my development. You probably take it a little harder when you first get sent back. But for me, I’m just going to put myself in a position where I’m in the best shape possible and as strong as I can be when September rolls around.”