Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Darnell Nurse went from the NHL’s outhouse to the OHL’s penthouse when he was sent down a few weeks ago by the Edmonton Oilers. But while his preference would have been to stay at the professional level, he’s taking this demotion as an opportunity to learn everything he can — and refine his already impressive skill set.
“It was a great experience. Every kid dreams of playing hockey at that level and it’s something that I’ll never forget,” Nurse said. “I learned a lot from being there, just in regards to the pace and how guys prepare at that level. It was a fun environment up there and I’m looking forward to improving my game so that next year there’s no question about me staying.”
Greyhounds’ general manager Kyle Raftis said his captain has displayed the leadership and class he’s known for since his return to the OHL.
“It’s been good. I wouldn’t even say it was frustration, but rather just a little bit of disappointment,” Raftis added. “Like any player, if you think you have a one percent chance of staying there, or it’s 50/50, you’re going to be disappointed if you don’t stay there. But I think he’s been great. We had some good talks when he came back; he was able to take some time and visit with his family and kind of reset himself.
“I think he knows what the goals are for himself and there are a lot of things he can improve this year that will help him get back to Edmonton.”
Nurse was the Oilers’ first round selection, seventh overall, in the 2013 NHL Draft. The 6’4” defender finished last season by playing four games with the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons. This season, he started the year with the NHL squad, getting into two games, before being sent back in late October.
Since his return, he’s reclaimed his position amongst the OHL’s elite. In 18 games, he’s performed at a point-per-game pace, scoring six goals and adding 12 assists.
The biggest change is in the caliber of his opponents, Nurse added, explaining that his end-of-season stint in the AHL and his start at the NHL this year have helped him with his OHL game.
“I think speed and size. You’re playing against men who do this for a living once you get to the AHL level and the NHL level,” Nurse said. “Obviously, me going through those experiences — and that being the last hockey that I played at the end of last year — it’s been a great advantage for me coming back here and just making those adjustments.
“You just come every day and play hockey. No matter where you’re playing or at what level, you’re still playing the same sport. That’s the approach I’ve always had. We’ve got a great team here in Sault Ste. Marie, and I’ve had a lot of fun — it’s a great environment to be a part of.”
Some players say that the game slows down for them. And while that is also true for Nurse, he’s quick to add that part of that may also be coming from the normal maturation and development process.
“I think you see things a different way, but I also think that comes from having another year under my belt,” Nurse said. “It’s a completely different season, I went through a summer with a hard level of training, I had the chance to experience the game with another level of players. I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable going out there, making plays, and helping out my team.”
Nurse’s goal this year is to refine his skill set. It’s focusing on the details that will help him take his game to the next level.
“It’s more of just working on the small details and my play with the puck,” he said. “That’s what I’m working on this year offensively — trying to make more plays for my teammates and those small passes.”
Raftis said he agreed with that assessment, adding that at Nurse’s age — regardless of his talent level — improvement is the name of the game.
“Obviously, I put him as the top defenseman in the OHL, but it comes down to the little things — like not being satisfied,” Raftis said. “Obviously he’s a great skater, but it’s about continuing to improve on that. There are many things he can improve, and that’s not to say they’re not great already. It’s just continually improving, because that’s what being a 19-year-old is all about, whether you’re here or in the NHL.”
Nurse was named to the selection roster for Team Canada’s World Junior Championship squad. While some consider him a lock, he’s remaining coy about his hopes.
“It’s not something I think too much about. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself and I just want to go out and play hockey. Things will work out for itself,” he said, adding that he and the team are focused on a deep playoff run in the Soo. Although, that’s another thing he won’t let the team focus on either.
“It’s a big thing for me. That’s another thing that as a team we’re not going to look too far ahead. It doesn’t help you to get into that mindset,” he said. “Everyone has the same mindset that we’re going to come out each day and make each other better.”
And for Raftis, participation in the World Juniors and the playoffs are all stops along the road to greater success that he feels Nurse will benefit from.
“You know what, in a lot of senses it helps. You want those little milestones and accomplishments,” Raftis said. “I’m not saying that playing in the World Juniors is little in any way — it’s a huge accomplishment — but at the same time it’s great to have those smaller goals in the not-too-distant future to keep you focused.
“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for him. Who knows what will come of it, but it’s a huge honor to be a part of it — there are so many players in the NHL that never got to participate in it. And being so close to some guys’ hometowns will also be a huge thing.”
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