Yesterday when we published an updated list of the remaining unsigned restricted free agents, any Edmonton Oilers fan would have focused in on one name. Darnell Nurse is still without a contract after his breakout season in 2017-18, and could potentially make it tough on his team with a long-term contract demand. The Oilers have just under $5MM in cap space remaining, a good chunk of which could go to Nurse if his new contract buys out any unrestricted free agent years. Still, GM Peter Chiarelli is confident that a deal will get done with the young defenseman, explaining to 630 CHED radio that RFA contracts just take a little longer to work through.
The big question for the Oilers will be how much cap space to commit to Nurse, given that the team already has nearly $18MM/year invested in four other defensemen. Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson and Kris Russell are all signed for at least three seasons, and with a huge chunk of the cap already going to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl the team has to be quite careful with their salary going forward. A bridge deal for Nurse could be the best for both sides, as a three-year contract would still leave him as a restricted free agent with plenty of cap space to give him on a long-term deal. Whether the Nurse camp would be open to that isn’t clear, but it would be a way to maximize his earnings later in his career.
After playing 82 games for the first time in his career and recording a career-high 26 points, Nurse has established himself as a key part of the Oilers going forward. What he hasn’t done yet is show the big offensive upside that many believe is still inside of him. Part of that is due to his lack of powerplay time with Edmonton, but there is likely even more even-strength offense to come from the seventh-overall pick. If those numbers rise over the next few years he could set himself up for a huge UFA contract as a true two-way defenseman, given his already established ability to defend, contribute on the penalty kill and log big minutes.
Nurse must sign a contract by December 1st in order to play at all in the 2018-19 season, but Chiarelli seems confident that something will be worked out long before then. For now, we’ll have to wait to see what the Oilers decide to do in order to fit him into their current salary structure.