Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Leafs rumoured to have interest in Darnell Nurse, is he worth considering?

The other day I happened to catch James Mirtle on The Lowdown with Lowetide on TSN 1260. (around 15:40 mark) A lot of the conversation is about the Leafs looming roster overhaul this offseason, and the consensus opinion that there is no way that Dubas is close to done. Of course the shifted to defensive needs for the Leafs. And how the Kasperi Kapanen move freed up both cap space and gave them a future asset to flip for a player they need now. Given that it’s an Edmonton radio station, whether or not the Oilers are a fit for a trade came up as well.

Around the 29 minute mark in the audio (linked above) we get the catalyst for why we’re talking about this and that’s the “I know the Leafs like Nurse” quote from James Mirtle.

Seemingly that’s not a whole lot to go on, but let’s look at who Darnell Nurse is. Nurse is a player that both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe could not be more familiar with. And while I can appreciate that at some point the Leafs might want to consider acquiring players that weren’t former Soo Greyhounds, Nurse is a player who is more interesting than his label a physical defenseman and some of that was explored recently by Jason Gregor in a post about Sportslogiq’s Zone Entry Data over at Oilersnation.

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The Sportslogiq finds showed that not only was Nurse the leader on the Oilers in Controlled Entries, Controlled Entries resulting in a shot, and Controlled Entries resulting in a scoring chance for the Oilers, but across the league his numbers were also quite good, as he was 7th in controlled entries, 9th in controlled entries resulting in a shot, and 6th in controlled entries resulting in a scoring chance out of all defensemen across the league. The data was not presented as a rate stat, so some of this is weighted by the fact that Nurse was healthy this year and played significant minutes for the Oilers.

When looking at the list in Gregor’s article showing the top 50 defensemen in those stats, there are two Leafs present, Justin Holl and Morgan Rielly. Converting the stats to per 60 rate stats, we see a better comparison:

Controlled Entries Controlled Entries resulting in a shot Controlled Entries resulting is a scoring chance
Nurse 4.77 1.66 1.01
Rielly 5.27 1.78 1.16
Holl 4.60 1.61 0.89

So Nurse is better than Holl, but Rielly, not surprisingly is a significantly better puck carrier. Of course, both Holl and Nurse are stronger in their own zone, but Rielly remains a cut above the competition, and Rielly’s numbers trail only Josi, Chabot, and Heiskanen, and Josi’s numbers are off the charts in comparison to all other defensemen.

The case for why Nurse might be such a significant puck carrier for the Oilers is probably due to the fact that he would often be on the ice with the Connor McDavid line, a line not known for having too many puck carriers beyond McDavid. That’s where we might see the increased reliance on Nurse.

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Looking at some more conventional comparisons between Nurse and the Leafs blueline, it doesn’t appear that Nurse is the answer…

CF% CA/60 xG% xGA/60 Hits Blocks
Nurse 48.68 58.81 48.97 2.53 154 103
Rielly 51.65 60.2 51.45 2.47 35 49
Holl 51.8 54.76 52.99 2.23 78 66
Muzzin 53.58 54.33 52.32 2.27 102 70
Ceci 50.22 55.85 50.87 2.2 82 59
Dermott 50 54 52.62 2.13 72 50

He’s far ahead in hits and blocks, which points to him as a means to address the Leafs physical play needs, but a greater number of attempts against on defense are common for Nurse compared to the Leafs. That can largely be attributed to the way the Leafs play compared to the Oilers, and when you consider that Nurse spent his entire season with a rookie partner, and playing behind Draisaitl and McDavid, neither of whom acknowledge the defensive zone, it’s understandable that Nurse’s numbers aren’t where you’d hope to see them and it then comes back around to assessing the ability of Nurse himself, a player with good speed, good sense, is comfortable carrying the puck, and brings a physical element as well.

Of course there are two other significant drawbacks that keep him from being a fit for the Leafs, and that is his $5.6 AAV in each of the next two seasons before he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, and the fact that he shoots left, something the Leafs don’t have as much a need for on the blueline.

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What would Nurse cost the Leafs?

Well, earlier in the discussion betweeen Lowetide and Mirtle, the names of interest that came up for the Oilers are Frederik Andersen and Andreas Johnsson. Either one could be a worthwhile option for the Oilers, and fits in with the fact that they can sacrifice some of their defensive depth to upgrade at other positions, and both Andersen or Johnsson would work for the Oilers from a salary cap perspective as well. Although for the Oilers, if they are looking to shed defensemen, the side they would be more likely to be trading from is on the right side, not the left, assuming they see Evan Bouchard as a lock for their blueline and want to give Broberg another year to deveop.

As for whether the Leafs really should be interested in Nurse, all signs point to no. The physicality is appealing, as it often is just following the playoffs, and the familiarity of Nurse to Keefe and Dubas has to carry a lot of weight, but as things sit right now Nurse is has a bad contract that expires in a pretty short turnaround, and the best part of his numbers are black box proprietary data that makes it hard to compare how strong Nurse really has been to others.

I like Nurse. I think he’s better than he’s allowed to be in Edmonton, but the case for acquiring a $5.6M left side defenseman isn’t there at this point and I think any interest the Leafs have in Nurse will probably be put on hold for a couple years.

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