What are the Blackhawks getting in No. 32 pick Nolan Allan?

A deep dive on Chicago's first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

This weekend involved a lot of movement around the Blackhawks defensive group. They kicked it off by trading top defensive prospect Adam Boqvist for veteran NHL defenseman Seth Jones and then chased it with using four of their seven picks in the 2021 NHL draft on defensemen. The first selection came with the 32nd pick in the first round: Nolan Allan.

The Basics

Position: Defensemen
Age: 18 (April 28, 2003)
Hometown: Regina, SK, CAN
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 195 pounds
Shoots: Left
Team: Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

Allan is a big, mobile defensemen who spent the last two seasons playing predominantly in the WHL with the Prince Albert Raiders. His production in that span - 10 points (3 G, 7 A) in 74 WHL games - is negligible, but he more than made up for it with his defensive prowess.

Allan already has NHL-caliber skating with potential to be above average if he continues to improve form. He has good straight-line speed and agility, with the ability to change direction quickly when needed and takes on opposing players one-on-one with confidence. Allan also has great balance on his skates, so he’s hard to knock off the puck and can protect it well when it motion. His skating informs every aspect of his game, especially his defense.

Defensively, Allan is advanced for his age, combining his skating and physicality to be active in both the neutral and defensive zones. He’s extremely proficient at preventing zone entries, ranking in the 95th percentile among tracked defensemen, thanks to a tight gap and his lateral quickness to react to rushing players. Allan has good instincts to know when to apply physical pressure to dislodge pucks from other players whether they’re in transition or along the wall. He’s not always looking for a big hit but can certainly deliver if the situation calls for it. Allan’s solid positioning means he’s able to close down passing lanes effectively and he’ll applying his physicality to take out a pass recipient if needed. This type of proactive defensive style is hard to play against and has led to the suppression of both quantity and quality shots.

Lack of refined puck skill is the main thing holding Allan back currently. Despite his above-average skating, he’s hesitant to join the rush and often bobbles the puck when he does and is prone to turnovers when pressured too heavily. Scott Wheeler from The Athletic noted that “his game with the puck already concerns [him] against his peers,” suggesting it would be even more difficult against higher quality players in the NHL and would hinder Allan from reaching his potential. His offense is also severely limited due to low passing opportunities and a mediocre shot, hence the lower point totals so far in his hockey career.

While offense is more of a nice-to-have element and not a necessity for a defender, contributing to play-driving can be the difference between bottom and second pair ceiling. Luckily, there is a possibility that Allan can contribute more offensively than he showed in the WHL. Mitch Brown from EP Rinkside said the following prior to the U18 World Junior Championship this season:

“He’s selective in transition, opting for the safe play too much, but showing the ability to beat forecheckers when he senses an opportunity. There’s more skill than he’s shown so far, too. Perhaps the U18s are when that skill starts to shine.”

Turns out, Brown was on to something.

At the WJC, Allan was paired with Brandt Clarke and primarily acted as the steady, defense-first springboard for which Clarke could display all his offensive prowess. However, he also showcased flashes of offensive ability that were uncommon when with the Raiders. Specifically, he passed both more often and with more success. His expected primary assists per 60 rate is almost a full reverse at the WJC from the WHL. Now, there is a talent jump with players selected to represent at international tournaments, but it also suggests that Allan rises with the quality of his teammates. It’s something to watch out for in the future.

Otherwise, Allan played as expected in the WJC: his sub-par puck skills resulted in a high turnover rate when in transition but he was defensively strong and physical when needed to shutdown opposing players. He proved he can be effective in a high stakes environment, even with some kinks.

Organizational fit

Despite trading away their best defensive prospect, the Blackhawks are still pretty flush when it comes to defenders in their development system. The Blackhawks have been on a drafting spree when it comes to defenders, which is good because it means Allan doesn’t need to be rushed to the NHL. Dubbed “low event hockey personified”, Allan has the foundation on which to build to become a shutdown second-pairing player but definitely needs to work on his puck skills to raise his ceiling. Most commonly, evaluators have him projected for a steady bottom-pair role complimenting a more offensive partner. The Blackhawks will need to be patient with this raw kid if they want him to reach his highest potential.

In comparison to other Blackhawks prospects, Allan is somewhat stylistically similar to Alex Vlasic and Wyatt Kaiser in that all three are good skating defensemen who focus primarily on the defensive side of the game. However, Vlasic is stronger defensively while Kaiser has more offensive upside. Due to a combination of lower age and well-roundedness, Allan is behind both when it comes to projected impact timeline and ceiling in the NHL at the moment.