- Growing up idolizing some of the most feared defencemen of all time, it should come as no surprise that Darnell Nurse has developed a bit of a reputation.
And it's certainly not a bad one.
"I love to hit," he said. "I can't get enough of it."
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound rearguard is ranked fourth among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. In addition to putting up 12 goals and 41 points last season with the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, Nurse rocketed up the charts after emerging as one of the country's most dominant physical presences.
As the 18-year-old explains, some players are naturally wired to become impact players on the physical side.
"It's better to give than to receive," he laughed. "Honestly, I think it's something that you either have or you don't. I was blessed with a larger frame and that helps, but even when I was younger and was a bit on the slighter side, I wanted to hit people.
"It's a huge part of the game and it's an area where I've been able to carve out a bit of a niche."
When called upon, Nurse isn't afraid to drop the mitts either. During the CHL Top Prospects Game earlier this year, the Hamilton native went toe-to-toe with draft-eligible Edmonton Oil King, Curtis Lazar.
"I wasn't looking for it but when Curtis asked me to go, I was like, 'Well, we can do this if you want!'" Nurse laughed. "Being in a situation where you're hard to play against, you're going to get challenged and there are times when you have to step up.
"It's part of the game. It's part of my game."
Alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones, Aleksander Barkov and a host of other top prospects, Nurse met with the media Friday on the shores of the Hudson River in New Jersey.
As a Devils fan growing up, it couldn't have been more appropriate.
"I grew up in Hamilton, so it wasn't all that easy to catch Devils games on TV, but I did my best," Nurse said. "The thing is, I wasn't even so much of a Devils fan as I was a fan of Scott Stevens. He was an incredible role model for me and that's where I learned to play with the edge I'm known for now. He was angry hitter and when he saw an opportunity, he'd made the most of it."
Naturally, the game has changed a lot since the Stevens era and many of the former captain's most devastating hits would now be deemed illegal, but that hasn't stopped Nurse from evolving along with it. For a big man, he skates extremely well and moves the puck with the poise of a seasoned pro.
"Skating is something I've worked on every single day since I was a little kid," he said. "Every time you take a step up to the next level, it's critical that you have an explosive stride. Considering my size, it's of even more importance."
In offering what he describes as the "complete package," Nurse's game has often drawn comparisons to that of retired Stanley Cup Champion Chris Pronger.
"Pronger didn't lose battles," he said. "Just watching him play, I had so much respect for how hard he is to play against. That's what I try to emulate in my game and it's a constant process to get to that level, but it's worth it. "
Currently weighing 185 pounds at last check (although that may have changed with his appearance at the Scouting Combine last month), Nurse is targeting a playing weight of between 215 and 220 pounds one day.
For now, his goal is to break 205 before making his NHL debut.
Overlooking the mighty Manhattan skyline, he couldn't help but picture what lies ahead. Come Sunday, he'll be well on his way to a career in the NHL. No matter where the talented young defenceman ends up, he's ready for the challenge and is excited to push for a roster spot next fall.
"I'd be happy to go anywhere. I'm happy to get this far but I need to keep working. No matter what situation I'm in, I'm going to push and give it everything I have. I'm at a point where I'm almost there. But almost isn't good enough. I'm going to push myself the rest of the summer to get there.
"The most important thing is to appreciate the moment. This doesn't happen often and it doesn't happen to everyone. I'm thankful for all this right now."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick