Darnell Nurse’s Sky High Potential vs the Zone of Proximal Development

After the Arizona game a week or so ago, Allen Mitchell (Lowetide) asked a really important question:

… in the game against Arizona, Nurse played five more minutes than Andrej Sekera. NHL coaches don’t do that by accident—and that is a fascinating development. Is it possible to fast track development by feeding a rookie major minutes?

The situation hasn’t changed since Arizona – Nurse continues to see major ice time.

I’m not a teacher, but in my career I’ve had a variety of teaching stints (CompSci, investing, and martial arts) working with both children and adults.

I’m sure many of you know this, or at least have an intuitive sense of it, but there IS a well-established body of research around appropriate levels of challenge needed to optimize learning.

It’s commonly asserted that learning takes place effectively only when students experience instruction at a level of difficulty that is appropriately challenging and attainable.

There is also a concept called the Zone of Proximal Development.  The idea is that you want a level of challenge that is something just beyond a learner’s established ability that can be attained by waning levels of instruction – that is to say, they need less help as time goes on and they grasp the idea. (h/t to Jesse @ Lowetide)

The ideal challenge zone is, in general, modeled as an ‘inverted U’ shape.

Too little challenge, and you sap the motivation to learn, and also create an artificial sense of competence that can make a learner fragile when faced with real challenges. [Theory: Justin Schultz?]

Too much challenge, and you can create discouragement, frustration, and a learned helplessness. Learning stops as the learner incorporates the idea that effort and learning don’t matter, since he or she fails no matter how high the effort level. [Theory: Sam Gagner?]

Empirically, in my history as both an instructor and a student, I can say this ‘zone’ represents a pretty good model of reality.

All of this speaks to why development really matters, especially for defensemen, where so much of good defending is about learning the right responses to defuse developing situations.  (I draw this in explicit contrast to forwards, especially elite scoring forwards, where ability seems much more tied to talent and instinct … neither of which seem to be particularly teachable. Development for forwards in any case also ends up being a lot about learning the defensive side of the game).

This is why many elite defensemen spend at least a year or two in developmental leagues after being drafted.

It is why keeping a defenseman in the AHL if that provides the right level of challenge is the smart thing to do, and NOT a sign of failure.

It is why Brandon Davidson’s overnight success, three years in the making in the AHL, should be treated as a bonus but not a surprise.

Now, to our man Nurse and LT’s question.

“Is it possible to fast track development by feeding a rookie major minutes?”

Answer: yes.

But only!  But only if those major minutes are not overwhelming that rookie on a nightly basis. If they’re not overwhelming for that particular individual, then major minutes are the right level of challenge, closer to the ‘peak’ in the inverted U.

If they are overwhelming the rookie, then not only are you not fast tracking development, you may be permanently harming development.  If a prospect hits the ‘learned helplessness’ phase and then ages out of the window for (easily) learning and making (fundamental) improvements to his game, then … well, you know.

Is Darnell Nurse being overwhelmed?

Well, he’s playing a lot of minutes.

By eye, he’s been struggling pretty badly of late.

The eye isn’t a particularly reliable measure, as it tends to notice the big plays (brilliance or boners, both) while ignoring the many small plays that often truly separate the good from the bad.  But the news on that front isn’t good either.

Sunil Agnihotri looked at Nurse’s underlying numbers, and they certainly confirm he’s having some trouble handling the minutes and the level of competition he’s facing.

Here’s a couple of my own dashboards, showing Nurse’s individual shot metrics performance this season:

Darnell Nurse Jan 24, 2016 player dashboard

As well as his performance within his pairings (I hope this is readable):

Darnell Nurse Jan 24, 2016 pairs dashboardI think one way to see if a player is being overwhelmed is by looking at the trend of his numbers. If they start OK and then begin falling off a cliff without recovery in sight… you might have a problem.

I’d have to say this trend is pretty damn worrisome.

That does look a little bit like a cliff in there, doesn’t it?

Now there is a little bit of good news.

For one, the curve has leveled off a bit.

The other is that the optimistic side of me says that Darnell Nurse seems to be as tough mentally as he is physically and the process of being thrown in the deep end doesn’t look to have harmed him yet.  

He’s overwhelmed but he’s not helpless in the face of it, by any means.

I admit, I’m on thin ice with this analysis … this is an awful lot to read out of a half-season of data and a handful of learning theories.

But there’s no guarantee this situation won’t eventually (or sooner) harm Nurse’s development if this keeps up.

If I’m Peter Chiarelli, I send Nurse down to the AHL for some more seasoning. Let him work on the fundamentals while also having the game slow down for him.  No shame and no harm.

At the very least, consider a game or two in the pressbox to get a different look at the game and see if it slows down for him that way.

The Edmonton Oilers need Darnell Nurse to reach his sky-high potential. The Edmonton Oilers may be in the process of ruining some of that potential.  Darnell Nurse does not look to be in the Zone of Proximal Development, and this is a concern.

This is something that needs to be watched like a hawk, and I hope the team is paying close attention.

One thought on “Darnell Nurse’s Sky High Potential vs the Zone of Proximal Development

  1. Great stuff G.

    I believe Nurse is sinking, but this is common for young D on below average teams during the year. Ristolelian had similar experiences over the last 2 years. Now, in this year, he is IMO, possibly on track to be one of the best D men in the league. This does not mean Nurse is on the same track, but for some D men, this type of “fast tracked development” will actually work. In the long term I think this will help Nurse as he is a guy who loves to be challenged. And he is smart and humble enough to know he has a ton of work to do, to become the best he can be.

    I think the break will do Nurse good. There are 14 games from the break to the trade deadline. Id give Nurse 3 games or so after the break and if he is still sinking, Id send him to the AHL for a breather. Then bring him up with the big club for the remainder of the year after the deadline.


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