So, all it took was Josh Morrissey setting the bar for Darnell Nurse to put pen to paper on a new contract. Almost exactly 24 hours after the Winnipeg Jets came to terms with their restricted free-agent defenseman on a two-year, $6.3-million contract, the Edmonton Oilers followed suit with a nearly dollar-for-dollar two-year deal with their own up-and-coming rearguard. The difference? An additional $50,000 per season for Nurse, a cap-hit pittance in an age where top stars are earning eight-figure salaries.
That Morrissey and Nurse signed mirroring deals is no surprise. Statistically, the two were equals last season in the final campaign of their entry-level contracts. They had twin 26-point seasons while seeing increased roles on their respective bluelines. It also helps they have an almost identical pedigree as 2013 first-round picks who have developed at arguably the same rate. And while Jets and Oilers fans may want to engage in a battle of the blueliners, there’s not much beyond select underlying metrics and some anecdotal evidence that would put one ahead of the other.
But while that may be the case right now, there stands to be two important differences between Morrissey and Nurse over the lifespan of their bridge deals that could make this the last time the two are near-perfect comparables: expectation and opportunity.
In Winnipeg, Morrissey will be given every opportunity to succeed, to be sure. He’ll be given that chance as part of a Stanley Cup contender, too. He’ll be expected to grow further, produce more offensively and round out his game to its fullest extent while becoming an even greater contributor to a deep defense corps. But the reality of Morrissey’s situation over the next two seasons is that he’s likely to live in No. 1 defenseman Dustin Byfuglien’s immense shadow. Depending on the situation with Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, Morrissey could even see himself stuck fourth in average ice time among Jets defenders. And that’s where Nurse’s situation differs.
With the Oilers, Nurse isn’t being called upon to grow slowly and steadily. He’s being asked to be the go-to guy now and well into the future, and the spotlight is going to be shone on him brighter than ever the moment he hits the ice for meaningful action this coming season.
Look no further than the 2017-18 campaign for evidence of what are sure to be increased expectations surrounding Nurse. One campaign removed from an injury-limited 44-game campaign, Nurse went from an expected third-pairing rearguard to a top-pairing fixture. He began the season skating less than 19 minutes per night, yet ended with a monster 27-minute game in the final game of campaign. His even-strength ice time was tops among all Oilers defensemen in the back half of the season, his total ice time 200-plus minutes greater than any other Edmonton blueliner and his shift count the highest per game.
Coming into the new season, then, Nurse is going to vault from his former third- or second-pairing status to the top of the heap. Matter of fact, he was No. 1 on the Oilers' defensive depth chart in The Hockey News’ Yearbook and that’s exactly where he’ll be come Game 1 of the 2018-19 campaign. And given the Oilers have arguably the toughest time bolstering their defense of any organization in recent history, Nurse’s forecasted spot in the lineup is an incredible opportunity.
There were signs last season that Nurse can shoulder the load as a top defenseman, too. Despite a near team-high quality of competition and the third-lowest offensive zone starts of all Oilers blueliners at 5-on-5, Nurse had the third-best Corsi for percentage (51 percent), second-best relative Corsi for percentage (0.6 percent), and topped the defense corps in on-ice goals for percentage (54.4 percent) with a relative goals for percentage (10.5 percent) that nearly doubled the next-best Oilers defenseman.
If that’s a sign of things to come, it’s awfully promising for both Edmonton and Nurse. For the Oilers, it would finally solve the long-standing issue of finding an anchor on the backend. Meanwhile, it would open the doors for Nurse to ink the kind of big-money deal that players are hoping to earn come the end of a bridge deal. We’ve seen in recent years, too, the type of money that Nurse could be able to command. Matt Dumba, for instance, turned a similar two-year contract into a five-year, $30-million pact just this past summer with the Minnesota Wild. That’s a raise that more than doubled his previous cap hit, and it came for a player who is arguably third on the Wild depth chart. Add a million or two to that over a full eight-year term if Nurse not only succeeds but excels in his role as the top guy in Edmonton.
The door is open right now for Nurse, and the opportunity is there for the taking. And while he maybe didn’t get the type of payout some were expecting, and while he maybe had the parameters set by another signing, flourishing as the Oilers’ top defenseman over the next two seasons would all but ensure that the only person setting the terms during the next trip to the negotiating table will be Nurse.