Nolan Burke was heading home for the summer. The 20-year-old forward was driving from Kitchener, Ontario back to his hometown of Peterborough.
Among the activities he was looking forward to this summer, going out on the lakes around Peterborough and playing some golf were at the top of his agenda as he spends some time with his family.
In his down time, Burke said he plans to keep working hard to get bigger, faster, and stronger coming to Nashville this fall for development camp. The Predators signed Burke to a three-year, entry-level contract on Nov. 14 while he had started to break out for a 50-goal season in the OHL.
“It was a dream come true,” Burke said. “And to never be drafted, never be a top prospect, people were counting me out, (saying) ‘This guy will just play in the OHL and he’ll be done.’ It’s more of proving a lot of people wrong [who] kind of put you to the side and didn’t think you’d be able to sign an entry-level contract.”
Burke was the first skater on the Sarnia Sting to hit the 50-goal mark since Reid Boucher scored 62 goals during the 2012-13 season. Before him, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was the last to do it during the 2007-08 campaign with 58 goals.
“This year, I knew it had to be a big year for me as I went into camp, and I thought I had a good showing going into the year,” Burke stated. “Everything went really well and I was finally able to showcase myself on what I can do when I was given a role.”
The Sting’s recent postseason run fell short in Round 3 against the London Knights. Sarnia lost in six games as the Knights advanced to take on the Peterborough Petes, Burke’s hometown junior league team.
“I used to go to all of their games growing up,” Burke admitted. “I used to watch Team Canada in the World Juniors and I was a massive Toronto Maple Leafs fan too. Whenever the Leafs would lose, I would run around the house.”
His Passion for Hockey
Burke’s parents exposed him to hockey at a young age by playing the sport, and of course taking him to watch the Petes play.
That’s how Burke fell in love with the game.
“It’s that competitive passion is what I love” he said. “I love winning and scoring that big goal that the fans go crazy for. I love the competitiveness of hockey and how hard work it is and how guys put their body on the line. I never got away from that and kept growing and growing.”
As he progressed, Burke worked his way up to the Ontario Junior Hockey League, playing for the Trenton Golden Hawks then the Pickering Panthers. Forty-four of his games were played with the Panthers, scoring 13 points.
“I knew I wanted to go to the OHL,” Burke acknowledged. “You’re playing a higher level of hockey sooner and that’s where I wanted to be to help my development as soon as possible. Back in the gym in Peterborough that I go to, there were a lot of guys who were playing in the OHL. I used their advice and watched them.”
Once he got to his first camp after being picked in the fourth round of the OHL draft, Burke was admittedly nervous but kept climbing the ranks, earning the trust of his coaches.
Building his game
Scoring 84 goals in his last 120 regular season games with the Sting, Burke’s trademark became his love for shooting the puck.
He soon perfected his craft, taking it upon himself to shoot as often as he could. Whether it was on or off the ice, Burke shot and worked on his toe-drag using cones to create lanes for himself to practice.
However, there’s one area that he takes the most pride in when thinking about playing at the next level.
“I’m more of a net-front guy, I’m really good without the puck,” Burke said. “I got into areas where my teammates could find me. I played net-front on the powerplay. I pride myself on that; every player has something that they’re really good at and that’s my game because that’s something that can transfer to the next level.”
WHAT A FINISH FROM BURKE 🔥@PredsNHL prospect @burkie786 shows off the patience in front of the net, putting the puck around Bowen to tie it for the @StingHockey 🐝#OHLPlayoffs | #LDNvsSAR pic.twitter.com/m4XXAfpAwW
— Ontario Hockey League (@OHLHockey) May 4, 2023
Burke’s 23 power-play goals led the OHL during the 2022 regular season. His teammate Ty Voit was the special teams setup man, picking up 37 assists on the man advantage.
“We took off and had chemistry,” Burke said. “When this season came up, we took another step. He had 100 points and I had 50 goals — it was one of those things where it was cool for both of us. We started our career with Sarnia and it’s always been a pleasure to play with (Voit); he’s one of my best friends.”
Nine games into last season, Sting head coach Alan Letang put Burke on a line with Voit. The duo never looked back.
The forward’s knack to get to the front of the net hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Predators organization as he played this season in Sarnia.
“With Nolan, he’s a big body. He has a knack for the net, and he needs to work on his skating, which, he agrees and that’s possibly why he got passed by,” assistant general manager Scott Nichol said. “COVID year was a tough year for him just with all of the prospects that year, but he goes to the areas to score.”
Nichol was complimentary of Burke’s knowledge of the game as well in watching him.
“He’s got a good head for the game and is very detailed and we love his ability to score goals,” Nichol said. “For a free agent pickup it was an under-the-radar move and we’re super excited to have him in our organization.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic turned things upside down, it had the same effect on Burke. He had nowhere close to him he could train at to stay in shape. He resorted to what he had and made do with at-home resources.
“All you could do was workout and skate,” he said. “Peterborough had shut down all of the arenas in town, so I had to drive like two hours to Toronto to get ice time. I would do that a couple of times a week. It was really hard, with everything so strict in Canada, it was just one of those things where it’s out of your control and keep putting your effort in and hoping that when it was all said and done we’d get to play again.”
After the 2020-21 OHL season was canceled, Burke’s draft hopes took a hit. He had no opportunities to showcase his skill and creativity to NHL clubs prior to the draft.
He was passed over that season and this past summer.
“I didn’t expect to get drafted my first year, and last year I had a pretty respectable season,” Burke said. “I knew there was a tiny chance I’d get drafted and obviously I didn’t. Then I wasn’t invited to any development camps. Once I had that happen, I knew it was time to grind and put my head down and went to work.
“I knew I needed to work as hard as I can and let everything else play itself out. If I don’t earn myself a contract, great, and if I don’t, I’m just going to keep working hard. There was definitely some motivation there that’s for sure.”
Burke worked his way up from a 10-point performance in 44 games during the 2019-20 season playing a third-line role to playing on the top line this season. His skating wasn’t where it is now, and after working hard with his skating and skills coach, his development accelerated, resulting in his 50-goal, 82-point season this year.
“I watched my video back during COVID when I was bored and I noticed areas where I needed to work on my game,” Burke noted. “You find ways to work on it, and once something worked, I stuck to it. I’m able to reflect on stuff like that pretty well and know myself and what I’m doing wrong and correct it.”
Next stop: Nashville
David Legwand, the first-ever draft pick in Predators history, is a co-owner of the Sarnia Sting. After he retired in 2016, Legwand spent that season working alongside fellow co-owner Derian Hatcher and general manager Nick Sinclair. Legwand is also the governor and the organization’s president of hockey operations.
Burke didn’t talk to him too much previously, but once he signed with Nashville, Legwand made time to chat with the newly signed Predators prospect.
“We had a couple of little chats after I signed there,” Burke said. “I knew that he was in my corner kind of helping me out as much as he could with other teams. He’s always been great to me, and after I signed, he told me how awesome Nashville was.”
Nichol raved about Burke’s development, stating the 20-year-old was “such an under-the-radar pick-up.”
“We’ve had good luck with the underdog kind of guys,” Nichol said. “The guys that take a little bit longer or they don’t get drafted but the work ethic commitment and dedication to his craft and he checks a lot of those boxes.”
Nichol, also the general manager of the Admirals said Burke “will fit in well” with some young guys this coming season. Skaters like Fedor Svechkov, Zachary L’Heureux, and Reid Schaefer who can score goals for the Predators one day.
“We have a really good young core of prospects that can score some goals and have some skill,” Nichol said. “That’s something as an organization where we’ve been lacking a little bit with our prospects. It’ll be a hard road for (Burke) but just like all the kids to make it, but he’s got a good mindset and he’s got a really good work ethic.”
Whether playing center or wing, Burke doesn’t have a preference. He found when he played center, he had to use his speed a lot more, which helped him succeed, but playing on the wing, he was able to get some more scoring chances on the rush.
“Honestly, I’m happy I got to learn how to play both the last two years,” he said. “I think it’ll help me at the next level because the winger spot can be more important, so I need to be able to play both. I don’t have a preference, but if I picked one, it would be center since you get more speed and get to cross over into the middle. They’re both close for me and I don’t mind either position.”
Nathan Gerbe has been a vital part of keeping tabs on Burke since he’s closer to Sarnia. He’s gone to watch him play and he sends Burke some videos with advice. Gerbe was named Sebastien Bordeleau’s replacement as the team’s forward development coach on Sept. 14.
“Everyone felt like it was the right fit for the Nashville Predators,” Gerbe said. “It was the right character. Nolan is a kid of high character and you want as many of those guys as you can in your organization. We all met with him on Zoom and watched his film and all of us were really excited to add him to our prospect pool.”
Gerbe’s initial approach was to establish a relationship with Burke, as he wants to with each prospect. When he does speak to a prospect he wants them to know he cares. Teaching becomes easier for a former veteran of the NHL when he does meet with players in the Predators system.
“Scott Nichol texted me after some big moments this season congratulating me,” Burke said. “They’ve been great to me. The biggest relationship for me was staying in touch with Gerbe, and I look forward to growing those relationships.”
Gerbe echoed how Burke is smart and finds areas to find ways to score goals. He has great “stick detail” and “defensive detail” in his game which at the end of the day shows high character.
Meeting more of the Predators and Milwaukee Admirals coaching staff in Nashville, along with some fellow prospects is next on Burke’s agenda. He wants to see where the (development camp) experience takes him, knowing he’ll more than likely have some time with the Admirals in his future.
“When I get to camp in Nashville, I want to give myself the best opportunity possible,” he said. “Hopefully I can play a few preseason games and push for a start in Milwaukee to start the year off — that’s the goal for me and learn how to play that pro game and get accustomed to it. I saw a few guys later in the year who earned some call-ups, so if that happens, great, and if not, then just focus on what I can do to make my game better.”