Can Nolan Burke become a regular NHLer?
Has Nashville found anything in their latest addition to the pipeline?
Signed as an undrafted free agent to a three-year entry-level contract in November 2022, Nolan Burke has turned a lot of heads since then.
On one hand, many see 50 goals and 82 points in 55 games for the Sarnia Sting forward and get excited about his NHL potential; on the other hand, some see a 20-year-old playing on one of the OHL’s best teams who scores a lot on the power play and don’t want to get their hopes up. Unsurprisingly, the answer might be somewhere in between.
First and foremost, Nolan Burke is an elite scorer at the junior level. And I would argue he’s not a one-year wonder. We’ll never know how he would’ve produced in his canceled sophomore season during COVID, but he notched 34 goals last season, shooting 23.6%. While he won’t replicate his current 28.1% shooting rate at the pro level, it still takes a lot of skill to score 50 goals—good for second in the OHL right now.
What Burke can replicate at the pro level is his ability to score in a myriad of ways. He’s not a one-dimensional sniper or a net-front rebounding force; he can score from all over the offensive zone.
Burke (#86, black) plays a tenacious game in front of opposing goalies, leveraging his strength to box out defenders as shown in the clip above. He can also find quiet ice as the third forward and beat goalies off the rush, as shown below:
Burke has also been known to squeeze through defenders, dazzling crowds, and deking out goalies with spectacular goals like this one:
The 6’1” forward combines his elite scoring touch with good spatial awareness and an excellent sense of puck support up and down the ice. In the clip below, Burke helps the Sting regroup in the neutral zone by resetting the play with his defender before turning up the ice for a give-and-go opportunity. As Sarnia enters the offensive zone, Burke crashes the slot, giving his teammate a solid passing lane. When the puck goes into the opposite corner, Burke diverts his path to the inverse of his linemate’s (and #20 on Soo’s) to initiate an offensive zone cycle; when the puck goes up to the point, he immediately sets a screen in front of the goalie. To cap things off, Burke identifies quiet ice in the faceoff circle and pounces, receiving his teammate’s pass and firing a laser into the back of the net—again demonstrating his above-average scoring ability.
With his scoring and playmaking talents established, Burke has also demonstrated he’s a very good transition player.
In seven games tracked this season, Nolan Burke has exited his own zone with possession on 88.2% of attempts and entered the offensive zone with possession on 75.0% of attempts, including 83.3% of the time he chooses to carry the puck in.
Burke is mostly good at keeping his head up through the neutral zone, but I suspect his transition success will decrease a bit at the pro level without further development. One issue is that he likes to carry the puck far out in front of his body, making him vulnerable to defenders with active sticks; to me, that’s a side effect of his very hunched stance when skating at top speed.
Burke also is not the fastest skater out there. He gets where he needs to go, but he won’t burn pro defenders on the outside, and that makes his change-of-pace abilities with the puck much less effective (similar to a younger Tommy Novak). Burke’s skating mechanics are inconsistent: sometimes he demonstrates a proper stride extension, but too often his strides are choppy and limiting. More consistency there and learning to keep his chest upright while transporting the puck will help with his speed and possession skills.
Puck protection is another area where Burke can improve. As a 20-year-old with his size in the OHL, he should be dominating puck battles. But as shown in the clip above, Burke gives up possession too easily after a couple of shoves from the Soo defender. Those plays happen, but more importantly, he takes a step or two too long to engage on the backcheck. Without a good pinch from his teammate, the Greyhounds would be quickly up the ice.
Here’s another example of lacking puck protection ability. I’m not too concerned about Burke fixing this, but he needs to anticipate pressure a step sooner and learn to better use his frame to outmuscle defenders in situations like these.
Burke’s flaws in puck protection go hand-in-hand with his anticipation and reaction speed. Whether out of choice or necessity, he often waits until the last possible moment to make a play when pressure is coming. That can be useful, but I think pro-level opponents will tend to close in too quickly for that to be effective. Burke is a really smart player, so it shouldn’t take much adjustment to start making decisions a step earlier.
Off the puck, Burke’s reaction time can be slow, especially in the defensive zone. Again, he gets where he needs to go, but he doesn’t regularly get a jump on opponents’ decisions nor take proper lanes or angles to cut off their attack. A lot of players can get away with that in juniors, but in the AHL and NHL, it will result in more odd-man rushes surrendered and lazy penalties committed—as shown in the clip above.
Right now, I see Burke’s ceiling as that of a top scorer in the AHL. He has too good of a nose for the net not to score at higher levels. But his skating speed and inconsistencies won’t do him any favors in NHL camps. I think, with improvements in the areas listed above, he can develop into a good bottom-six forward and solid power-play option in Nashville, but only if he can layer the tools I identified on top of one another better. If he can combine his shooting skills with better off-puck anticipation, quicker decision-making, and more strength on the puck, Nashville may have just found a valuable player for the future.
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com and ontariohockeyleague.com.