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Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse eager to lead if Team Canada needs it: ‘It’s part of who I am’

Neate Sager
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Nurse, a top 10 NHL pick in 2013, was not on Canada's smaller than usual selection camp roster for the 2014 WJC …

MONTREAL — In order to lead, Darnell Nurse might have to move to the right.

One takeaway at the end of Team Canada's summer development camp is that the biggest question will be about the composition of the blue line. Aaron Ekblad, depending on how quickly he comes back from the brain injury on Tuesday, stands a chance at breaking camp with the NHL's Florida Panthers. The box labelled 'shutdown defenceman' is unmarked, plus there were only three right-handers in camp this week.

Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers prospect, played on his off, or right side, exclusively on Thursday during the second exhibition game against Russia. Canada isn't going to compromise on quality to satisfy some arbitrary left/right balance, so it was time to gauge how Nurse could adapt to it.

"I've dabbled in it," the 19-year-old Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds captain says. "I've spent some time there in the A when I was in Oklahoma City. I played with Oscar Klefbom [who will be Nurse's competition for a job in Edmonton next month] and we would kind of switch. I've had a little bit of experience.

"It's something I'm not uncomfortable with. I can play either side; we have a lot of lefts in the Soo. It's always good to show what you've got. I hope that helps me."

Debating Nurse's readiness for the NHL, of course, is helping the nearly three whole months without hockey in Canada pass much quicker in certain circles. The Hamilton native has filled out to 6-foot-5 and 208 pounds — "Mom's cooking," he says — and has become cagier about taking chances with jumping into the play or trying to throw a check.

Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski noted this week that the phenomena with the 18-year-old newly minted NHL draftees is being unable to resist the temptation to try to make a Hall of Fame play. The national junior team made the tough call to omit Nurse from its smaller than usual 25-player selection camp roster for the 2014 WJC.

This week, Nurse gave some indication that is long behind him. The only major blemish was taking a head-checking minor/misconduct during the Russia game ("That comes down to being aware of where your hands and stick are," he said).

"That maturity, that age difference is a huge thing and I expect Darnell to understand that and be better due to that," Jankowski said. "That's another factor with your 18-year-old year versus your 19-year-old year [for all prospects]. They've had a better opportunity to prepare for it. All the draft stuff and their first NHL camps is really taxing on them. They've had all summer to prepare for this."

An injury prevented Nurse from joining Canada two seasons ago for the world under-18 championship, where a group led by Connor McDavid that included many hopefuls for this December won the gold. Seventeen alumni of that team were in camp this week; that experience would seem more germane to the present Canada's five-year WJC gold-medal drought.

No sibling rivalry

The Greyhounds star is cognizant that he is playing catch-up as far as the Nurse family and representing Canada in major international competition is concerned. His sister, Connecticut Huskies point guard Kia Nurse, already beat him to the punch by debuting last summer with Canada's national women's basketball team while still a high school student. There's no direct comparison, but...

"I can't even call it a rivalry," Nurse says. "I'm probably her biggest cheerleader and she's probably my biggest cheerleader. I'm really lucky to follow her career path and hopefully I'll put on a good show for her too.

"It would be cool to share in that experience with her and hopefully I put myself in position to do that," he added.

Christmas Day, when Team Canada's roster will be finalized, is far off. But try imagining Canada getting to the top without Nurse being on the blueline and performing to the projections that were a reason he was a top-10 pick last year.

"It's part of who I am, go out there and lead by example," Nurse said. "Whatever needs to be said, I'm not shy about saying it. The biggest thing is come out and work hard every day."

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