If Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland is a list maker, chances are somewhere near the top of his to-dos, even with the trade deadline a mere two weeks in the offing, was an item pertaining to the signing of defenseman Darnell Nurse to a contract extension before the off-season. And as of Monday afternoon, Holland can bust out his finest stationary and strike through that one as Nurse has put pen to paper on a two-year pact with the Oilers.
It has been expected for weeks now that the two sides would iron out a new agreement, and the announcement of the extension comes amid reports Sunday the two sides were nearing completion of the deal. Not as certain, however, were the financials of the contract, but TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported following Monday’s signing that Nurse’s new deal carries a $5.6-million cap hit, up significantly from the $3.2 million he has earned annually on the two-year bridge contract that will expire at season’s end. And while there’s plenty to like about the deal, it’s not without its drawbacks. But let’s start with the plusses.
For the Oilers, getting Nurse signed and settled was of utmost importance, but so was figuring out a way to get the 25-year-old locked up to a deal that would provide some measure of cap flexibility for Edmonton moving forward. True, the Oilers aren’t completely handcuffed as a result of several contracts coming off the books this summer, but considering Edmonton’s roster needs – consistent secondary scoring, depth at all positions, a quality split-time or second-string netminder – every penny saved is a penny Holland can turn around and spend in the off-season to address the roster concerns. With the ink dry on Nurse’s deal, Holland is in line to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $13.5 million with which to work. That’s not an insignificant sum.
What the deal also provides Edmonton is options in the short-term. Though Nurse has been considered a part of the franchise’s future since he was drafted seventh overall in 2013 and has become a consistent top-four rearguard in Edmonton over the past few seasons, there are some questions about the long-term direction of the Oilers’ blueline. Rearguard Evan Bouchard is believed to be a blue-chip prospect, Ethan Bear has been something of a revelation for the Oilers this season and the promise possessed by 2019 eighth-overall pick Philip Broberg gives Edmonton a trio of defensemen who could be fighting for minutes in two seasons’ time. None of this is to mention, either, that 26-year-old Oscar Klefbom has anchored himself onto the top pairing.
While it seems more likely than not at this moment that Nurse is an Oiler well into the future, it should be said that the future makeup of the Edmonton blueline is by no means etched in stone. Plenty can change, especially if we assume the best for the continued development of Bear, Bouchard and Broberg. And if the Oilers decide at any point ahead of the 2021-22 off-season that the best way forward or optimal way to address another need is by moving Nurse, his status as an unrestricted free agent at contract’s end could make him the most attractive trade asset. That’s particularly true if Nurse’s status remains the same heading into the 2021-22 trade deadline and Edmonton – heaven forbid for the sake of the sanity of Oilers fans – is in a position to sell.
Of course, moving Nurse along is not the intention. As McKenzie reported Sunday, the plan isn’t for Nurse to be anywhere other than Edmonton come the end of his newly signed extension. Rather, the two sides appear to be hoping to get back to the bargaining table at some point ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, at which point they would attempt to hammer out the long-term deal many assumed Nurse would have been receiving this time around. And barring Nurse posting a season so exceptional that it makes his re-signing financially prohibitive, it’s difficult to see a scenario in which he and the Oilers can’t figure out that next contract. Not only is it unlikely his price rises higher than, say, $7.5-million or $8-million per season, but any significant raise he might earn on his next contract could and probably will be somewhat mitigated by a rising salary cap. That’s especially true when taking into account the NHL’s television rights deal is up following the 2020-21 campaign and the next TV contract is expected to boost the spending limit significantly.
But just because the Oilers could afford the increased price tag in two years’ time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the ideal way to handle this situation, which is chief among the drawbacks from Edmonton’s perspective.
At the time Nurse signed his prior bridge deal, it was closely attached to the two-year pact Josh Morrissey signed with the Winnipeg Jets, with Nurse earning a negligible $50,000 more per season than Morrissey on a contract inked with the Oilers one day later. And though stylistically different players, the two rearguards have remained somewhat comparable statistically, which raises the question: would it really have been that much more expensive to get Nurse locked in long term? On an eight-year extension signed in September, Morrissey will earn $6.25-million per season, which is only $650,000 more per season than Nurse will earn on his two-year pact. Suppose Nurse doubled his earnings margin on Morrissey on a deal of a similar length or even tripled it. That’s $6.4-million per season, and the additional long-term savings could be somewhat beneficial for Edmonton, particularly if the search to strengthen the bottom six continues into the future.
That’s not the only negative for the Oilers, however, as Edmonton surrendered significant bargaining power in the future. Right now, the Oilers had a chance to buy UFA years and ensure Nurse remained under team control. With UFA status in his back pocket, though, Nurse will hold the cards next time around and have the option to walk away from any deal he doesn’t like. Again, maybe it opens the opportunity for a natural parting of ways for both sides, but if Nurse wants to move on in two seasons’ time even when Edmonton isn’t ready to let him walk, there exists the possibility that he will be able to do so, especially if he’s not all that happy with the offers that come his way come July 2021 when he’ll first be eligible for yet another extension.
So, while the Oilers got what they needed in the immediate, most notably the financial flexibility they need to add around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it required some important concessions that don’t make the signing a clear-cut pass or fail for Edmonton. The jury is out, and it will remain that way until we know what comes next for Nurse and the Oilers.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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