Cage Match: Digging deep on Aaron Ekblad and Darnell Nurse

by Rick Roos on February 14, 2018

Usually I’d be wary of covering two players who’ve combined to score barely 150 points in nearly 450 career games; but when they happen to be heralded young rearguards Aaron Ekblad and Darnell Nurse, those concerns disappear. Let’s dig deep to see who’s the better own at present, and for down the road. Cage Match starts now!

 

Career Path and Contract Status

Ekblad, who turned 22 last week, was the top pick in 2014, the first defensemen to hold that honor since Erik Johnson in 2006. Ekblad not only played for Florida that same season, he tallied 39 points, nearly doubling the highest output by an 18-year-old defenseman since 1985-86. A slip to 36 points in 2015-16 was still considered a success given his age and for avoiding the dreaded d-man sophomore slump. But 2016-17 saw his output drop to 21 points in 68 games, and this season even after four points in his last three contests he’s at a 31-point pace, igniting concerns his career could mirror that of Johnson, who’s yet to post 40 points in any season.

Nurse, who turned 23 also last week, was selected 8th overall in 2013 after jumping from ten points in 53 games to 41 points in 68 games in the OHL. Two more junior seasons saw Nurse improve his production, cementing a spot with the Oilers. Once in the NHL, however, he struggled, with only ten points in 69 games in 2015-16 then 11 in 44 games last season. Although the point floodgates haven’t opened this season, he should eclipse his combined scoring from his first two campaigns. Despite a current scoring slump he seems to be getting better by the month, with three multi-point efforts since mid-December.

Ekblad is on year one of an eight-year deal that dings the cap at a massive $7.5M per season, while Nurse is making $0.863 this season on the last year of his ELC and is set to be an arbitration-eligible RFA this summer.

Ice Time (stats are current though February 11)

Season

Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

2017-18

23:40 (A.E.) – 2nd

21:37 (D.N) – 2nd

2:17 (A.E.) – 2nd

0:25 (D.N) – 4th

2:22 (A.E.) – 2nd

2:12 (D.N) – 2nd (tied)

2016-17

21:27 (A.E.) – 2nd

17:01 (D.N) – 5th

2:47 (A.E.) – 2nd

0:06 (D.N) – 7th

0:48 (A.E.) – 6th

1:11 (D.N) – 6th

2015-16

21:40 (A.E.) – 2nd

20:13 (D.N) – 4th (ted)

2:50 (A.E.) – 1st

0:13 (D.N) – 8th

0:44 (A.E.) – 7th

2:02 (D.N) – 5th

2014-15

21:48 (A.E.) – 2nd

2:48 (A.E.) – 2nd

0:25 (A.E.) – 8th

 

Looking at Ekblad’s numbers, you’d be hard pressed to pick which of his prior seasons was the one where his production nosedived. We’ll have to look closer at his SOG and PPPt rates, plus luck metrics, to seek a logical explanation. Meanwhile, this season his overall Ice Time is up considerably, yet most of the added time is SH duty and his PP Time has decreased to a career low mark.

 

In terms of potentially relevant player comparables, Ekblad has double-digit goals in each of his four NHL seasons. Only one other rearguard since 1990-91 accomplished that feat – Dion Phaneuf. By the end of 2017-18, however, John Klingberg is on pace to do so as well; and those who accomplished the feat in three of their first four seasons is impressive: Drew Doughty, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Zubov, and Mark Streit, each of whom posted 59+ points at least once, plus John-Michael Liles, who, although not in the same class, nevertheless managed three 40+ point seasons.

 

Nurse’s 2015-16 average TOI was third highest among all rookie d-men that season, and made him one of only 30 rearguards since 2010-11 to average 20:00+ as a rookie. Of the others, 23 scored below a 40-point pace as a rookie; but a majority have since gone on to produce 35+ points at least once. Good news for Nurse? Maybe not, as if we focus on just the d-men who, like Nurse, played in 50+ games as a rookie yet scored at less than a 20-point pace (Nurse has scored at a 12 point pace), that leaves just four: Adam Larsson, Brenden Dillon, Marco Scandella, and Jonas Brodin, none of whom has cracked even the 30-point mark in any subsequent season.

 

Also, it’s concerning that when Edmonton was excelling in 2016-17, Nurse’s ice time dropped, although in their (and his) defense he was just a 22-year-old second year player at the time. On the positive side, he’s getting more ice time than ever this season and easily leads team rearguards in plus/minus. Even still, there’s a glaring lack of PP Time. Yet there are possible signs of hope, since in six of the team last eight games he’s seen 1:30+ of PP Time, and in four he took the ice for 48%+ of the team’s PP minutes. Plus, no other Oiler d-man has truly succeeded in that role, which should lead to him getting more chances to seize the reins.

 

Secondary Categories

 

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2017-18

1.11 (A.E.)

0.88 (D.N)

0.82 (A.E.)

1.81 (D.N)

1.50 (A.E.)

1.87 (D.N)

2.67 (A.E.)

2.33 (D.N)

0.11 (A.E.)

0.00 (D.N)

2016-17

0.84 (A.E.)

0.75 (D.N)

1.27 (A.E.)

2.43 (D.N)

0.90 (A.E.)

1.20 (D.N)

3.26 (A.E.)

1.93 (D.N)

0.11 (A.E.)

0.00 (D.N)

2015-16

0.52 (A.E.)

0.87 (D.N)

1.11 (A.E.)

2.32 (D.N)

0.75 (A.E.)

1.49 (D.N)

2.33 (A.E.)

1.74 (D.N)

0.11 (A.E.)

0.01 (D.N)

2014-15

0.39 (A.E.)

1.34 (A.E.)

0.98 (A.E.)

2.10 (A.E.)

0.16 (A.E.)

 

If Nurse continues his current pace, he’ll stand at just under 200 games and 45-50 points by the end of this season, while having averaged over 2 SOG per game. Those are unique stat lines, as since 1990-91 no rearguard – by age 23- had scored fewer than 60 points in 175+ games while averaging even 1.8+ SOG per game. Moreover, none had finished a season with fewer than 30 points while averaging 2.25+ SOG per game in 75+ games, as Nurse is on pace for in 2017-18. Yet if the age restriction is upped to 24 Jake Muzzin’s 2013-14 season qualifies, which bodes well for Nurse given what Muzzin has since gone on to do.

 

Nurse definitely provides major stat stuffing contribution, which also give us additional bases for player comparables. Since 2000-01, only seven different defensemen have averaged 1.8+ hits, 1.8+ blocks, and 2.2+ SOG per game in 65+ games (a pace that Nurse is above as of now) in a season at least once. Of the seven, just one (Johnny Boychuk) failed to manage even one 40+ point season in his career. Three (Phaneuf, plus Shea Weber, Drew Doughty) tallied 56+ points at least once, another is still improving (Rasmus Ristolainen), and in terms of the last two, one (Stephane Robidas) had a single 40+ point season while the other Philippe Boucher) had two. Yet if we focus solely on those who, like Nurse, struggled to score in their early seasons, we see that was far more so a trait of the non-Weber, Phaneuf, and Doughty group, which is not a great sign.

 

Ekblad has remained a SOG machine even as his scoring has slipped. He’s all but assured to finish his first four seasons with a collective SOG rate of 2.5+ per game. Since 1990-91, there’ve been only seven d-men who met those criteria (Phaneuf and Zubov, plus Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Roman Hamrlik, Rob Blake, and Vladimir Malakhov); and the good news for Ekblad owners is the lowest single season career high in points among them is 57.

 

So Ekblad is bound to snap out of this scoring funk, which is now going on two seasons, right? Not so fast. Each of those seven had recorded 50+ points or a 50+ point scoring pace in one of their first four seasons, which means Ekblad could be an outlier, although in his defense other than Hamrlik none of them was like Ekblad a rookie at age 18. Plus, the fact that Ekblad averaged 3.25+ SOG in a season where he played more than 65+ games puts him in very elite company, as only ten other rearguards have managed to do so since the 2000-01 campaign, and among them the lowest single season points high is 56 points.

 

Luck-Based Metrics

 

Season

Team Shooting % (5x5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Average Shot Distance (in feet)

 

Offensive Zone Starting %

Secondary Assists %

2017-18

7.24% (A.E.)

7.96% (D.N)

29.9% (A.E.)

35.3% (D.N)

42.1 (A.E.)

44.8 (D.N)

44.9% (A.E.)

50.4% (D.N)

66% (A.E.)

50% (D.N)

2016-17

4.92% (A.E.)

7.84% (D.N)

38.9% (A.E.)

35.5% (D.N)

45.9 (A.E.)

47.8 (D.N)

58.9% (A.E.)

52.9% (D.N)

63% (A.E.)

66% (D.N)

2015-16

9.03% (A.E.)

7.69% (D.N)

38.7% (A.E.)

19.2% (D.N)

42.8 (A.E.)

47.6 (D.N)

55.8% (A.E.)

46.3% (D.N)

62% (A.E.)

57% (D.N)

2014-15

7.75% (A.E.)

44.8% (A.E.)

48.1 (A.E.)

60.7% (A.E.)

63% (A.E.)

 

Nearly all of Nurse’s metrics are trending in the right direction, with his team shooting % rising each season, and his ASD and secondary assists % for 2017-18 both marking career lows. His IPP, however, hasn’t risen this season, and that’s a concern since it suggests he might not have a nose for scoring. Left unanswered, however is not only whether he can see further gains in these areas, but also whether that would help elevate his scoring.

 

For Ekblad, these numbers provide helpful explanations, or at least partial justifications for his drop in scoring. No question as a rookie he was quite sheltered, which, along with a high secondary assists number and IPP, led to his impressive output. His sophomore season had no eye-opening numbers, and then last season he was hurt by an unsustainably low team shooting percentage, while this season – the first under new coach Bob Boughner - Ekblad he’s being used in more of a defensive capacity, and as such is finding a tough time scoring despite decent metrics in other areas.

 

Of course, Ekblad’s IPP is unsustainably low this season, such that if it had been merely the average of his previous three seasons he’d have at least a couple more points by now, and, with that, be on his way back at least mid-30s production. Yet one lingering concern is Ekblad’s consistently high secondary assists percentage, even as his average shot distance for this season is the lowest of his career thus far. What that suggests is although he’s shooting a lot, his shot selection is perhaps poor, since otherwise he should get more primary assists from players knocking home rebounds.

 

Who Wins?

 

It would be virtually unprecedented for someone who shoots the puck as much as Ekblad to not find his way to being a good to very good scorer, especially with his 3.25 SOG average one season. On the other hand, nearly every d-man within the last 30 years who played a significant role at age 18 had made a major mark in terms of scoring by his fourth season, with those who didn’t rarely becoming top scorers, ala Rostislav Klesla, Kyle McLaren and Luke Richardson. Essentially, we must to decide which comparisons are more meaningful – those based on his SOG rate or on his age and scoring to date.

 

For Nurse, although he too is still very young and shoots the puck a lot, his inability to produce well by now, plus his even less encouraging player comparables, make it difficult to see him turning into a top scorer down the road. Best case scenario he becomes a 40-45+ point d-man ala Jake Muzzin, and worst case he’s the next Johnny Boychuk.

 

So what should poolies do? Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 pick propped up his value more - and for longer - than it arguably should’ve. But now it’s working against his value, with him being perceived as more of a disappointment than he’d otherwise be. Given his player comparables he’s a risk/reward proposition. My take is his SOG achievements should speak louder than his age-related “failures,” so if you can get him for a bargain price, pull the trigger. At worst you should still get 30+ points and nice peripherals, but you could end up with a 50+ point jackpot.

 

Nurse’s lure is the lack of a successful PP QB on the Oilers, since if somehow he can seize that role and run with it, he could morph from a multi-cat stud who can’t score to a superb all-around d-man. So in other words, he’s a risk/reward too. But in his case I think the risk is too high, as the Oilers can’t afford to proceed without a bona fide PP QB. Thus, if no one on the team steps up this season, as seems to be what’s happening, chances are they sign someone this summer, which most likely would mean Nurse likely ends up as Boychuk 2.0.

 

 

  • Mathieu

    Thanks Rick. Nice analysis. I can’t help but wonder what trajectory Ekblad’s production would have taken, had Gerard Gallant stay at the Panthers’ helm. He knows so much how to get the most out of young players.