Things are starting to heat up with between Darnell Nurse and the Edmonton Oilers.
On Saturday night during Hockey Night in Canada, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Oilers and Nurse are making progress on an expected short-term deal. Nurse is on the final year of a two-year deal with a cap hit of $3.2 million and with Nurse patrolling the blueline for just under 23 minutes a night, the Oilers value him as a top-pairing defenseman.
Since Nurse signed his last deal, his 1.09 points-per-60 at 5-on-5 has been the best among Oilers defensemen. Nurse's possession numbers aren't pretty, but at least he's on the ice with some guy who touches the puck a lot himself named Connor McDavid, right? Nurse isn't a perfect defenseman and isn't a league leader in any particular category, but at least the Oilers have been able to rely on Nurse to carry the load.
A short-term deal for the 25-year-old could be in the best interests of both parties. Nurse will be a UFA on his next deal, and if the Oilers aren't happy with Nurse's further development, defensemen such as Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg should be ready by then. But in a year where the Oilers have four of its seven active defensemen requiring new deals and Adam Larsson's contract to worry about in 2021 (assuming the team intends on keeping him, of course), Nurse's next contract is one to keep an eye on.
The 2020 RFA class has a strong contingent of defensemen, including a handful of late-blooming young stars. Here's a look at 10 of the best options after the halfway point of the regular season:
Anthony DeAngelo, 24 (NY Rangers)
Few defensemen have improved their stock as much as DeAngelo has this season. After bouncing around three NHL organizations, DeAngelo entered the 2019-20 season on a $925,000 deal – below his previous AAV of $1.26 million but higher than his $863,333 cap hit. His previous best scoring total was 30 points a year ago, but with 41 in his first 52 games this season, DeAngelo has been a massive delight for a Rangers team seeking positives. If DeAngelo's production can be trusted, the 24-year-old is on pace for 60 points this season. If that's the case, the Rangers have an interesting negotiation on their hands because DeAngelo might actually be the real deal.
Mikhail Sergachev, 22 (Tampa Bay)
The Lightning had a fun time trying to fit Brayden Point into the equation this season, but the cap gymnastics aren’t done yet for GM Julien BriseBois. Sergachev is tracking for a 10-point increase from his 32 point season last year and would edge out his 40-point total as a rookie with the Lightning a year before that. So, at least we know he's consistent, so how does Sergachev fit in Tampa's plans? Sergachev joins a group of RFAs that includes forwards Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Carter Verhaeghe, as well as Erik Cernak. Those are all players the Lightning won’t want to give up, and Sergachev will eat up a large portion of the $7 million cap space the club is projected to have. Still, he's a must-sign, even if on a bridge deal for now.
Vince Dunn, 23 (St. Louis)
Dunn has a Stanley Cup under him and he has an opportunity to play a more vital role for the Blues in the future. A modern-day defenseman that can dish the puck out safely and play on the man advantage, Dunn could benefit if the Blues are unable to sign Alex Pietrangelo this summer and with 36-year-old Jay Bouwmeester set to become a UFA, Dunn will be seen as a leader on the blueline. The third-year defender has seen a drop in his points production, going from an average of 0.45 points-per-game to 0.27 this season, but Dunn's best work is done away from the puck.
Ethan Bear, 23 (Edmonton)
Bear has quickly become one of the more exciting rookies in the NHL this season, so his hot run comes at an interesting time for contract negotiations. If he continues to play like he has this season, the Oilers will have a dynamic, skilled defenseman that works as hard as anyone during any given contest. There are some similarities to the start of Samuel Girard's career in Colorado as Bear has had, so a deal in the $5-million area would be tremendous value for a player showing long-term potential.
Ryan Pulock, 25 (NY Islanders)
Let's all agree on one thing: Pulock is severely underrated. A sixth-year NHLer, Pulock is typically known for his physical play and his powerful shot but he's on pace for a 45-point season which would surpass his previous best of 37 a year ago. Pulock can play a variety of roles for the Islanders, including power play, penalty kill and even a shutdown role if needed, but he's been a stable part of the Islanders' core group for the past few years and the team will want to lock him up long-term.
Devon Toews, 26 (NY Islanders)
Depending on the night, Islanders fans can love or hate Toews, but at his best, Toews is a valuable asset to the organization. At times, Toews struggled to find consistency from game to game – in other categories, he's one of the team's better players. At 25, Toews is starting to really figure out his role with the Islanders and looks like he can be an inexpensive option on the second pairing as a versatile defender who can play heavy minutes and fill whatever role he's asked to do.
MacKenzie Weegar, 26 (Florida)
Weegar could be one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. He started off as a depth option with very little offensive upside and has formed a nice partnership with veteran Keith Yandle. Currently in his third complete NHL season, Weegar's ice time has jumped from a previous high of 16:58 to 19:24 this season and while injuries have limited his playing time to just 29 games, Weegar's 12 points in that span would have put him on a near 40-point pace for the season – not bad for a player who's career high is 15. Weegar shouldn't be expensive, but the Panthers have to be excited about him.
Erik Cernak, 23 (Tampa Bay)
Cernak was a nice revelation last year in Tampa Bay, playing top-four minutes for a defensively sound team and adding a level of physicality the team was missing. But Cernak hasn't been as impressive this season, displaying a lower offensive output (to be fair, scoring was never his specialty) and lower possession numbers, but he's still getting the job done. The Lightning have a gaggle of young prospects who can fill a similar role, but Cernak should stick around at a solid price.
Victor Mete, 22 (Montreal)
It took Mete 126 career games to score his first goal – now he has four, so watch out Bobby Orr. Mete's career has been a little all over the place in recent years, which included a demotion to the AHL last season before a second-half revival. Mete's game has improved this season and part of that has been thanks to better deployment – he didn't fit the top-pairing mold he started his career as and works better as a supplemental option. If there is something more to his game, good news: his next contract shouldn't be that hefty, so if he does find an extra gear in his game, he'll look like a true bargain.
Other notables: Troy Stecher, 25 (Vancouver), Matt Grzelcyk, 26 (Boston), Sean Walker, 25 (Los Angeles), Vladislav Gavrikov, 24 (Columbus), Travis Dermott, 23 (Toronto).
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