Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse aims for Team Canada spot

Darnell-Nurse-WJC

When the cuts were made to the 2013 Canadian world junior team, a howl went up in some corners when Darnell Nurse was left off the roster. The seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft, Nurse had size, mobility and a growing offensive repertoire – all great traits for a best-on-best tournament. But the Canuck braintrust went a different way and though it’s unfair to claim in hindsight that Nurse would have contributed to a better constructed blueline, the Edmonton Oilers prospect is back in camp and on a mission to learn from the past.

“You have to be on all the time, whether it’s a practice or a game,” Nurse said. “It’s a real fun camp to be a part of. You’ve got 40 guys all competing.”

Nurse is at the 2014 camp now in Montreal, where he’s hoping to make a good impression on the Hockey Canada decision-makers and show off his best attributes.

“I’ve always had the ability to cover the ice with my skating,” he said. “My strength is knocking guys off the puck.”

At 6-foot-4 and 189 pounds, Nurse is a big blueliner with a nasty streak. I wondered last summer if that aggressiveness would hurt him in an international tournament where bodychecks often become penalties based on how loud the crowd cheers. To that end, it’s worth noting that Nurse saw his PIM total drop season over season and he said that a lot of his focus has gone into improving on the minor details on defense, such as staying between the dots in his zone and letting the play come to him.

To me, Nurse could be an excellent shutdown option with offensive upside at the tourney, much in the same way Russia’s Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo) took away half the defensive zone every time he was on the ice in Malmo.

After another successful campaign with the Ontario League’s Soo Greyhounds, Nurse even got a chance to see the pro game when he hooked up with Oklahoma City in the American League. He played seven games with the Barons, split between the regular season and the playoffs, where he gained even more confidence in his physical abilities.

While there is a possibility that Nurse sticks with Edmonton this fall and begins his NHL career, he would otherwise have to return to the OHL, since he doesn’t turn 20 until February. So the world juniors would be a great tournament for his development.

With Aaron Ekblad and possibly Josh Morrissey NHL-bound this fall, the Canadians would only have one returning D-man from the previous world juniors in Owen Sound’s Chris Bigras. Even then, the Colorado prospect was effectively the seventh man on the unit (thus absolving himself of any blame in what was a bit of a debacle).

One interesting aspect of this year’s candidates is how once again, the field is dominated by left-hand shots. Canada’s Olympic team was split right down the middle and had great success, but the world junior squad had just two righties in Ekblad and Matt Dumba. Assuming Ekblad is with the Florida Panthers, that leaves only Washington pick Madison Bowey and Kings prospect Roland McKeown available this time around. Of course, Nurse is willing to play his off-side if it means a red and white jersey come December.

“Last year I played both sides,” he said. “Even in the AHL. It’s nothing I’m not comfortable with.”

Now it’s time to start proving his worth, no matter which side of the ice he’s on. The Canadians play four games in a row this week in Quebec, with Russia and the Czech Republic providing the competition. That’s where Nurse can begin to lay the foundation for what he hopes is a berth on a national team that will be under a lot of pressure to win when the WJC medal round hits Toronto after New Year’s.