EDMONTON — Dallas Eakins isn’t sure how his fourth line will be constructed, isn’t sure about the options he has at centre and just how many defencemen he will carry in his first season as coach of the Edmonton Oilers. But he knows one thing. Darnell Nurse is complicating matters.
“His job is to keep screwing up our plans,” Eakins said of the 18-year-old blueliner, the seventh overall selection in the 2013 draft, who will pair with Jeff Petry tonight in a preseason test against the Vancouver Canucks at Rexall Place. “That’s the problem with those 18-year-olds. He’s definitely getting better every day right now and we’ve just got to wait and see if he plateaus or keeps getting better.”
Last Wednesday at Rogers Arena, Nurse logged 22:58 in a 4-1 preseason victory over the Canucks, threw three hits and blocked four shots. At some point, the Oilers must have the conversation of whether to keep Nurse in the NHL or send him back to junior. He’s been that good.
“In Vancouver, I thought he was very dynamic,” added Eakins. “He was creating offence, skating and playing a big man’s game in our zone as well. He wasn’t shy. Usually an AHL player or a young player, they get on the ice against the level of the Sedins and their stature, they get a little shy and give those guys a little extra space and too much respect. He wasn’t respecting anybody on the ice, which I really liked.”
Nurse can point to a family pedigree for providing an athletic foundation. His father, Richard, played eight CFL seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as an agile slotback and wide receiver. His uncle, Donovan McNabb, played 13 NFL seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings and had his number retired by the Eagles on Thursday. Encouraged to choose hockey over football by his dad, his growing 6-foot-4, 196-pound frame would translate well to the gridiron, but what he’s already doing in his first NHL camp is special.
“I believe in myself a lot to come in and make an impact and to make it as hard as I have on the coaches to this point,” said Nurse, who had a dozen goals and 41 points in 68 OHL games last season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. “I’m really happy with what I’ve done. There’s still a lot of work and a lot of room for me to grow, but you work hard and see where it takes you.
“The best part about this is I’m in a dream. I’m playing alongside guys I’ve watched on TV for years and playing against the Sedins, and when you put yourself in that position, you can only be happy.”
The Oilers are also curious if left winger Ryan Hamilton can push Ryan Smyth and Ben Eager for ice time and whether Will Acton is a better fourth-line centre fit than Anton Lander.