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Nurse will use taste of pro hockey as road map to Oilers

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons

Darnell Nurse got a taste, a brief taste but one he’ll savour.

“It’s been awesome,” the 19-year-old defenceman said. “It was a great opportunity for me to come out here and really show my stuff and learn a lot. Just being in this environment and playing at the pro level, it was probably the most fun I’ve had playing hockey. It obviously sucks that it’s over but it was a great time. I learned a lot and I’m ready for this summer.”

The Edmonton Oilers’ top prospect and the seventh overall pick in last year’s NHL draft joined the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League at a desperate time for the club as they looked to make the playoffs. Thrown into the fire, Nurse played well and earned the trust of his new coaching staff very early on in his professional stint.

After finding his legs in his professional hockey debut against Abbotsford on April 11, Nurse recorded his first professional point in his second game. He continued to round into form with just a handful of periods under his belt.

“Well, I think we have confidence in him and that’s dictated by his play on the ice,” Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson said after that second game in Abbotsford. “We used him in overtime and just because he skates so well and cover the ice. We definitely have confidence in this player and I think as we go on here and the more games he plays, he’s going to get more comfortable.”
Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons

The Oilers prospect appeared to fit right in with playoff hockey. He had an assist in game one of Oklahoma City’s series against Texas and backed a teammate in a rough spot. He fought in his first professional hockey tilt in that game as well, defending teammate Jordan Oesterle who was ran into the boards by Scott Glennie, the eighth overall pick of the Dallas Stars in 2009.

For Nurse, it was good to get in and mix things up against bigger, more experienced players. He came from a junior season in the OHL where he had 50 points (13-37-50) in 64 games, but the professional ranks are a whole new level of competition. Nurse feels he handled the challenge well.

“Obviously, there’s challenges with the size and the speed but it’s definitely something that I felt a lot more comfortable as each day went by and I felt as though I put on a pretty good showing and helped the team as much as I could,” Nurse told in his exit interview.

Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons

To soften the landing in the pros, the Barons head coach paired Nurse with one of his veterans whenever he could. Taylor Fedun was often the player paired with the rookie, taking him through the motions and helping him with the systems and the ups and downs of each game. It helps having an intelligent player like Fedun around to help the younger guys fit in.

“He’s such a great play and real smart and he made my job easier just talking to me and helping me every step of the way,” Nurse said of Fedun. “It really (helped me) adjust to the game and I really couldn’t ask for a better partner or somebody to show me the ropes.”

During his time with the Barons, Nurse was able to see some of the areas of his game that need refinement before he’s ready to make yet another leap, this time to the NHL.

“I think the biggest thing for me is in the small details in the d-zone and in my positioning. For me it’s going to be a big year to go in the weight room and push myself to get into a different level. It’s exciting to know what lies ahead and, at the same time, it’s going to take a lot of preparation and a lot of work for myself in the gym as well as on the ice.”

So to the gym Nurse will go as he embarks on an important summer in his development calendar. He made a good impression in his first NHL training camp last off-season but, in the end, was trimmed from the Oilers’ final roster. Nurse would prefer that wouldn’t happen again as he looks to make the Oilers outright. His short but beneficial taste of professional hockey in the last few weeks has given him that blueprint of what it will take to get there.

“That’s definitely my goal,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of work and something that I’m going to prepare myself as much as I can to go out there and put on a good showing.”

 - With files from Carter Baum, OKC Barons

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