Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Darnell Nurse earns his shot

After completing their pre-season schedule with 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers were left with some rather difficult decisions to make prior to the start of their 2014-15 schedule. 

While no one should have been surprised to have seen the likes of Jujhar Khaira, Kevin Westgarth and Bogdan Yakimov not make the Oilers final cuts, the same could not be said for the quartet of Keith Aulie, Anton Lander, Steve Pinizzotto and Tyler Pitlick. 

As poor as Aulie looked during most of his exhibition outings, most believed the former Calgary Flames draftee was all but guaranteed the No.7 spot after signing on as a free agent to join the Orange and Blue. Luckily that was not the case and he will start the year as a member of the OKC Barons. 

Pinizzotto was always a bubble guy that could have gone either way but considering both Lander and Pitlick need to clear waivers before being able to report to Oklahoma City, the fact neither one grabbed a spot was somewhat unexpected. That said, none of the four should have been viewed as locks to start the year in Edmonton and not surprisingly, none of them will. 

Of course the same cannot be said about defenceman Martin Marincin. After being among the club’s best defenceman in 2013-14, the organization decided to send the former second round pick back to the American Hockey League and give both Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse a shot at earning regular duty along the Oilers blueline. 

While some will point to the inclusion of Brad Hunt ahead of Marincin as a bit of a head scratcher, considering the health of one Nikita Nikitin…it wasn’t exactly a shock to see the native of Maple Ridge kept around for a look-see. To his credit, the twenty-six year old had a solid camp but in the end, it was his ability to create offence from the backend that earned him the shot. 

From the moment Craig MacTavish inked Nikitin to a multi-year pact, the plan was to give the big Russian a chance at quarterbacking Edmonton’s second power play unit but a wonky ankle will keep him from performing those duties to start the year and hence the decision to keep Hunt around was made. In my mind, there is really nothing else to read into the move. 

Where Marincin lost out was to the aforementioned duo of Klefbom and Nurse, who both out performed him during the pre-season. As was previously mentioned in this very spot, read here, it is not as though this came out left field and the organization has never hid the fact they hold both players in higher regard than the big Slovak defender. 

There was no way on earth Dallas Eakins was going to keep all three around to start the year and for the second consecutive pre-season, you could make the argument that Nurse was the Oilers best or second beat defenceman rearguard. Once you combine that with Marincin’s struggles and the injury bug hitting the trio of Andrew Ference, Nikitin and Jeff Petry, having the former seventh overall pick start the season in Edmonton was likely a rather easy decision for the head coach and general manager. 

If you actually take a step back and think about, it makes perfect sense. The difference between Nurse and the rest of the Oilers current blueline is obvious. At the tender age of nineteen, he has already shown the ability to not only move the puck up ice but also a willingness to use his size to advantage and play a mean and at times, an almost dirty brand of hockey. 

Contrary to what some might have you believe, in today’s National Hockey League, teams still need defenders who can punish opposing forwards in the defensive end and make life rather difficult around the crease. What they don’t need, are the likes of a Mark Fraser who can do nothing more than lean on guys physically. 

Nurse brings that element to the table and this team badly needs it. Now does that mean he will be here the entire year? Of course and in all honesty, unless he proves to be capable of taking on something close to a top four role along the blueline, the organization would be making a major mistake to have stick around past his nine game trial run. 

With that said, when it comes to both Martin Marincin and Darnell Nurse, their immediate future will ultimately come down to their performance on the ice and as of right now, the kid from Hamilton has earned a chance to stick with the big club. It may not have been the most popular of moves among their fan base but it was the route this organization has decided to go down. 

Now it will be up to both players to force management’s hand into making yet another decision in exactly three weeks’ time. If nothing else, it should be rather fascinating to see how things play out. 

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