Many factors push NHL players to complete that extra repetition in the gym or to dig out the skates a few weeks early, and cut their summer short.
Rank and contract status are two of the more common motivational elements for players aiming to lay the groundwork for a successful season, but for rookies, projects, established members, and hangers-on alike with the Edmonton Oilers, incentive arrived in the form of a pair of signatures this summer.
When Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl each agreed to maximum-term contract extensions this offseason, establishing a one-two punch down the middle in Edmonton that could very well rival any center tandem in the NHL for the next eight years, the Oilers themselves shared in the excitement in the city.
And soon those signings would energize them.
“For us, as a team, it’s definitely exciting, especially knowing that two of the top players in the league are going to be there for a long time,” Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse said after a workout Tuesday at the BioSteel Camp in Toronto.
“It (has) motivated everyone to continue to work and try and be a part of that for a long time.”
But for Nurse, maintaining association with McDavid and Draisaitl would have been just the tip of iceberg. This is a player that had every reason to be hellbent on putting in the work required to complete the next step in his progression this season.
Entering his third year, and coming off a season left incomplete by an ankle injury, Nurse is still aiming to achieve “established member” status at the NHL level. For the former seventh overall selection, that would mean thriving in a top-four role under Todd McLellan on the Oilers’ blue line.
As it happens, Nurse will have the chance to enter that proving ground when the Oilers officially reconvene in a few weeks. Veteran defenseman Andrej Sekera is expected to miss a significant portion of the season as he continues to recover from offseason ACL surgery – an injury that has vacated a spot in the club’s top four.
Factor in that Nurse is entering the final season of his entry-level contract – meaning that many millions can be secured with a significant step taken – and it was incumbent on the 22-year-old to have a single-minded focus throughout the summer months.
But there was one other major factor that fed into Nurse’s determination.
He was a part of 13 emotionally-charged Stanley Cup Playoff games in the Oilers’ return to the tournament after more than a decade on the outside.
Reminders of the stage, and those encounters, pushed Nurse to have a better summer.
“I think that’s the greatest motivator of all, having been through that experience,” he explained. “It was a little shorter than anyone ever wanted. Nobody expected to get to the point we were at last year, but for us we definitely weren’t satisfied.”
If Nurse has set goals for himself this season, then he’s keeping them to himself. But he said that he expects the Oilers to build on what they accomplished last season and into the playoffs.
For that to happen, it’s likely that Nurse must continue on his upswing, too.
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