Produced by the WHL in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2018 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
The championship attitude is alive and well in Brandon, Man., especially when it comes to major junior hockey.
A run in 2016 yielded the team’s third Ed Chynoweth Cup in franchise history for the Brandon Wheat Kings, with a trip to the WHL Championship Series in 2015 also thrusting the team into the spotlight that now expects and demands annual success.
As life in junior hockey comes and goes, the nucleus of those teams have largely moved on, with the responsibility on this current generation to keep the team’s head held high. After all, a team is only as good as the quality of the players taking to the ice night-in and night-out.
Enter Luka Burzan.
A mid-season trade between the Wheat Kings and Moose Jaw Warriors brought about winds of change for both franchises, with Burzan elevated from a Warriors team where he was still very much a young part of their forward core to getting a chance to lead offensively with the Manitoba club. He’s taken full advantage of the opportunity.
“I was more an energy player in Moose Jaw,” noted Burzan. “In Brandon, I tried to bring up my offensive game a little more and learn some new things that way. Going to Brandon was definitely a good move for me and it definitely taught me a lot of new things.”
It wasn’t like offensive success was new to Burzan. As a member of the North Shore Winter Club’s Bantam A1-T1 squad in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, he tallied 131 points (80G-51A) in 62 games during the 2014-15 season.
That led to the product of Surrey, B.C. being the second of two Top 10 selections in the 2015 Western Hockey League’s Bantam Draft by the Warriors, going sixth overall, two spots after defenceman Jett Woo heard his name called.
This coming June, he’s protected to be the top player of a trio from the Wheat Kings that could all hear their name called in the 2018 NHL Draft. When NHL Central Scouting released their final rankings earlier this month, Burzan was ranked 91st among North American skaters.
“It’s a good feeling being one of the players up there and seeing your name among the best in the world,” added Burzan.
Wheat Kings’ head coach David Anning has had the pleasure of coaching Burzan since mid-January, but knew the forward well before from division clashes between the Warriors and Wheat Kings leading up the the January trade.
“When we played against him, he was somebody who was very hard-working, you definitely noticed his speed and the skating,” said Anning. “He’s very consistent in his approach.
“He causes a lot of problems for the opposition and I think he can get engaged physically, he’s hard on pucks and he’s able to be a heavy player down low. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s strong and powerful.”
Newfound chemistry with teammate Stelio Mattheos led to strong growth for Burzan in his time with the Wheat Kings. Recording 19 points (6G-13A) in 42 games with the Warriors, Burzan produced at a rate of .45 points-per-game. In 30 games with the Wheat Kings, he added 21 points (9G-12A), good enough for a rate of .70 points-per-game.
Even in a partially-limited role in Moose Jaw, half of Burzan’s goals came via the power-play. In Brandon, just one of his nine goals came via the man-advantage, backing up Anning’s assertion that the team saw improved success playing him at even-strength.
Ranking fourth on the Wheat Kings in playoff scoring, his seven points (5G-2A) all came at even-strength.
“He’s still a young guy,” continued Anning. “He’s a guy that we’re going to continue to use in a lot of key situations. We expect his game to continue to grow and improve.
“As all the young guys can, they can always get stronger and get working on their foot speed. We want to make sure that when he goes to a development camp at the professional level, is around a lot of guys similar to him, around quality coaching in a professional atmosphere that he really takes it all in and is able to learn.”
It helps that Burzan has had a free tutor of sorts growing up in his older brother Stefan, who similarly went through the junior hockey ranks and has had plenty to offer his younger brother.
“When he watches me play, he tries to give me tips and what I could do different,” added Burzan. “He’s been the role model growing up with him being older and going through junior.
“He’s been definitely a huge help for me in my junior career.”
Burzan has also had experience on the international stage, playing with and against many of the same players that will hear their name called that weekend in June.
Competing at the 2016 Youth Olympic Winter Games, he earned a silver medal with Canada and helped Canada capture silver at the 2016 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge later that year. Last summer, he was part of Canada’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.
Burzan will no doubt get his moment in the spotlight at the June draft, however brief as the picks can seem in the overall length of the season. He knows that day itself is important, but has his mind focused on the days, weeks, months, and years after.
“Obviously getting your name called would be special,” he continued. “It’s what you do after and how you develop after.”
He knows not yet which of the 31 NHL clubs will want to call his name, but will be headed back to beautiful Brandon, Manitoba come the fall regardless, eager to keep the Wheat Kings in the spotlight as annual contenders for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
“I want to help that team go farther in the playoffs next year,” added Burzan. “Every year you come to camp, your goal is to be a championship team and that’s what I want to help Brandon do next year.”
As far as Anning is concerned, he’s eager to see what an energized Burzan will be able to do for the club in a full campaign.
“We’re excited about his growth potential down the road.”