If the Oilers are going to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders this season, they will need their defense corps to continue to improve.
It would be very convenient to say that the Edmonton Oilers went from bottom-dwellers to predators solely thanks to the ascension of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but we all know it’s a little more complicated than that. Yes, those young guns were huge for the squad, but so was starting netminder Cam Talbot. And the defense, long a sore spot for the organization, really took form last season.
Now, with expectations sky-high for 2017-18, that defense corps is ready to make another statement.
“Our expectations are a little higher than they were coming into last season,” said blueliner Darnell Nurse. “We want to be a contender every year now and we have to expect to be a strong team from start to finish.”
Year over year, the Oilers made a great defensive jump. Their shot suppression was top-10 in the NHL, one season after being bottom-five. For a team that can now practically score at will (let’s not forget the 7-1 whitewashing of Anaheim in the playoffs), getting shored up on the back end was the last piece of the puzzle. And that post-season experience will help from here on out.
“The greatest motivator of all is having been through that experience,” Nurse said. “For us, we definitely weren’t satisfied.”
Fair enough, though most of the hockey world was impressed that the Oilers were able to take out a veteran San Jose squad one year removed from the Stanley Cup final, then fall with honor to another veteran outfit from Anaheim in seven games (and by one goal, no less).
The biggest changes on the back end came with the top pair. Adam Larsson held up his end of the Taylor Hall trade, while fellow Swede Oscar Klefbom was finally healthy and able to show off his fantastic two-way game. Along with Nurse, the team got contributions from veterans such as Kris Russell and Andrej Sekera, plus younger players like Matt Benning. Nurse missed a huge swath of the season due to an ankle injury, but he’s excited about how things have converged.
“We continue to grow together,” he said. “Everyone took steps last year. And we’re a really tight group. That’s a big advantage. We spend a lot of time together, work a lot together after practices, so as long as we continue to work, there’s a lot of room to grow and it’s another exciting part of being with the Oilers.”
On an individual level, Nurse’s next challenge is to stay healthy and play consistently. His size, strength and snarl are all intimidating and he definitely has shutdown capabilities. But he is still a young pro learning the game and taking things to the next level will be the ensuing challenge.
“I’m going to be well-prepared coming into camp,” he said. “Our coaching staff is always pushing us to be better and they give us opportunities when we earn them. It’s my plan to go in there highly motivated and ready to take on more.”
Earning more penalty-kill time would be one area that Nurse could shoot for, but overall he just needs to play solid in his own zone and let those dazzling forwards do their job. If it all comes together, the Oilers will be playing a lot more playoff hockey this season than they were last year. And it should be that way for years to come.
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