Darnell Nurse (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
There's a very good chance that the two Canadian world junior gold medallists are teammates in the NHL next year with Edmonton, but right now they'll be on opposite sides of a hotly anticipated conference final in the OHL.
The Erie Otters and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have been on a collision course all season long in the Ontario League; they were certainly the favorites to meet in the Western Conference final and sure enough, the showdown is now upon us.
But thanks to the luck of the lottery balls, the series has one more subplot added into the mix: top Edmonton Oilers defense prospect Darnell Nurse will now be tasked with shutting down his potential teammate in the NHL next year – Connor McDavid.
The Hounds and Otters both registered at least 50 wins this year, with only the East's Oshawa Generals coming between them in overall points. Both squads added to already potent lineups before the trade deadline, with the Soo nabbing big names such as Nick Ritchie (Anaheim), Anthony DeAngelo (Tampa Bay) and Justin Bailey (Buffalo), while the Otters countered by adding Nick Baptiste (Buffalo) and Remi Elie (Dallas).
Nurse and McDavid were teammates on Canada's world junior team this past winter, winning the nation's first gold medal since 2009 in Ottawa. Now the challenge is to stop each other. In McDavid, the Hounds face one of the most intimidating offensive forces of the modern era.
"Connor is a really special player," Nurse said. "It's the way he uses his speed and makes decisions at those speeds. We have to be aware of his ability to change a game."
On the flip side of the coin, Erie must be aware of the veteran rearguard Nurse, who brings another kind of intimidation through size, snarl and skating ability.
"He's one of the best, if not the best defenseman in the league," McDavid said. "He plays a full, 200-foot game, knows when to jump into the rush and he can shut guys down."
Despite being led by McDavid and fellow top 2015 draft prospect Dylan Strome, the Otters will be slight underdogs in the series, thanks to Sault Ste. Marie's unparalleled depth. Erie coach Kris Knoblauch acknowledged the matchup problems his team will face against the Soo, though as Hounds bench boss Sheldon Keefe noted, this will be the first series his team plays where the opposition believes they can win. Sault Ste. Marie breezed through the first two rounds with sweeps over Saginaw and Guelph.
But if you'd rather take the best player over the best team, then McDavid's Otters are the bet. The phenom center got to the conference final last season before losing to eventual champs Guelph. And his last game this year will be his last game of junior ever, so the stakes are high.
"It's been an interesting three years in Erie," he said. "The past two years have been a complete turnaround. Losing to Guelph, the guys had a pretty bitter taste in their mouths, so we're ready to get going."
And as far as the very real possibility of Nurse and McDavid being teammates in the NHL next season with Edmonton? That's on the backburner.
"Our series starts tomorrow," McDavid said. "I'll worry about that when it's over."