Darnell Nurse knows what he has to fine-tune.
No one expects perfection from a defenceman who's still a few weeks shy of turning 18 years old, but a chat with Nurse reveals he's counting on more than his potential to be a 6-foot-5 defenceman with a two-way game to boost his NHL draft stock. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds standout, who is a projected top-15 pick also wants to project NHL-worthy physicality without raising red flags about on-ice discipline. It's a telling a bit of self-awareness from the sophomore, who has 82 penalty minutes in 44 games with the 'Hounds.
"My physical game, it comes and goes," says Nurse, a Hamilton, Ont., native whose family is accomplished in hockey, basketball and football. "That's something I want to continue to work on. Plus playing on the edge but not going over it. I have a few too many penalties this year. I have to keep that in check a little bit. It's something fixable, discipline. You can go over the video and look to see if there's something in your game that you can change to avoid getting the stick penalties or the roughings. When you watch the films, you see things and know you can improve."
Nurse, listed at 6-foot-5 and 192 pounds, has helped the Greyhounds win 10-of-15 games since heard coach Sheldon Keefe's hiring six weeks ago. This past weekend might have been their best so far. The 'Hounds dispatched league-leading London on Sunday. The previous evening, his work during a 90-second two-man advantage helped key a win over Mississauga; Nurse managed to stay with the play and help prevent the Steelheads from scoring even after being hobbled by a painful-looking shot block.
That moment was right in keeping with how Nurse has already become a team leader in the Soo.
"We're thrilled with the way he's come along," 'Hounds GM Kyle Dubas says. "It's not a huge surprise because of how hard he works and the effort he puts into reaching his maximum potential every day. The other night, he's the last one here, he's working out, he's got first-year players there working with him. He's not a guy who yells and screams at others be there ... our other players see how he operates and how he's committed to getting better even though he's already really good. that's had a strong effect on our young group of players."
Between Detroit Red Wings prospect Ryan Sproul, who was a late cut of Team Canada, overage Colin Miller, 18-year-old Alex Gudbranson and Nurse, Sault Ste. Marie has a much stouter back end than it did at any point during the two previous seasons. Nurse, who quarterbacks the second-unit power play, has 27 points and is plus-9 so far this season. That shows improvement beyond the usual first-to-second-season progression, especially considering that he and regular defence partner Miller often face the opponent's top line.
"Personally, what I'm happiest with [this season] is just being able to step up in my own end," Nurse says. "Maintaining my focus in the defensive zone was something that, in some ways, has helped me do better offensively. I just want to be reliable and continue to show I can play against top lines. I plan on doing that in the second half."
1. What's been the net benefit of having so many family members who are accomplished athletes in their own right in a variety of sports?
"Being surrounded by people who have been through a lot of different experiences whether it's representing your country or playing in the pros, it's a really competitive household. Everyone's always pushing to get the best out of you whether it's on the ice, off the ice, in your schoolwork. It doesn't get much better than being around the people I have in my family. My dad [Richard Nurse] pushes me a lot. My mom [Cathy] and my sisters [Tamika and Kia], they give it to me if I don't win. It's a great household."
(Who's the most competitive?) ""I got to be the most, They can't want it as bad as me. I can't give them that."
2. In the past you used to cite Chris Pronger as a role model (Nurse wears the same No. 25 and his minor hockey team was the Flyers), but what other pro defencemen catch your eye?
"[The Nashville Predators'] Shea Weber is someone I've been watching more lately. He's a force in the league on a nightly basis. Being able to watch tape of him and model some things after the way he plays is something I've been trying to do."
3. Who are some teammates who have really helped you get along in the OHL?
"Our team has a lot of characters guys. If I was to break it down to three or four, one would probably be Alex Gudbranson. I've spent a lot of time with him working out on the ice and off the ice. He went through the whole process last year [as a draft-eligible 17-year-old] and continues to work and has a real bright future. Someone else is Colin Miller. He's such a great leader for our team and shows on a nightly basis what he's capable of.
"Someone else is [Pittsburgh Penguins-drafted goalie] Matt Murray. He's one of the best goalies I've ever played with and is a great team guy. Being surrounded by those guys and being able to go to them for advice or someone to talk to is something I've been really lucky to have."
4. What is your favourite road rink in the league?
"Kitchener. They have such a great atmosphere and such a great fanbase. Every time you go there [the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium], you know there's going to be a huge crowd and it's going to be a fun atmosphere to play in. I don't think they like us very much."
5. Since you're the first Draft Tracker of the new year, we have to ask, what was your best Christmas gift?
"I asked my parents for an iPhone and they hooked me up." (Was it the iPhone 5?) "No, just the 4, I was so happy to get it."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to email@example.com.