Will Borgen decided last March to pack his bags, leave school, start his professional career, and after 57 games this season with the Rochester Americans it’s clear that he made the correct decision. He’s only missed one game this season but there’s a good chance he would have played if it was a playoff game.
I initially set out to ask questions surrounding his thrilling fight recently, but it ended up yielding much more – a wealth of information about the way he’s played, confidence, and went down the path of what early success can mean to a pro career.
(Featured picture by Amerks photographer Micheline Veluvolu)
When Borgen arrived in Rochester last season for a few games and was asked how he described his style of play he said, “I’m a physical defenseman. I like to just play my role, play defense and get the pucks to the forwards and let them do the offense.” That’s exactly how he plays.
“I like to fly under the radar, the less you standout it’s probably usually the better – unless you’re like Zach Redmond scoring all the goals and getting all the points,” Borgen said when he was asked if he feels any pressure to stand out or just fly under the radar. He added, “I think standing out as a defenseman usually means they probably saw something bad so it’s nice.”
Matt Tennyson has spent time on the penalty kill with Borgen and talked about what he’s seen and said, “Adjusting to the pro level especially as a defenseman is tough to sometimes jump in, play a different style, play almost twice as many games as college, and I think he’s adjusted nicely and he’s playing well.”
Playing twice as many games hasn’t phased Borgen at all, in fact he just shrugged it off saying, “It’s my job now so I have every day to prepare my body and get ready for games. I enjoy it, it’s fun.”
It was clear in the eight games last season that Borgen would be a big part of the defensive unit in Rochester. There’s never been any doubt that he’d have a guaranteed spot in the lineup along with Zach Redmond, Lawrence Pilut, Brendan Guhle, Andrew MacWilliam, and Matt Tennyson. Pilut stepped right into the lineup and provided the offense. Borgen stepped right into the lineup and provided pure defense.
When asked what his goals are for the rest of the season Borgen said, “As a player I want get stronger and better offensively if I can. I work on things every day after practice with Gord. Our goal right now is just to win games, do well in the playoffs, and make a run.”
It feels like I’d be doing a disservice to shorten any quotes. There’s an abundance of information below from talking to Gord Dineen, Chris Taylor, Andrew MacWilliam, and Nathan Paetsch.
Gord Dineen is one of the assistant coaches for the Rochester Americans and his primary focus is on the defense. Dineen played pro hockey for 18 years (528 NHL games) and is in his 20th season coaching. He knows a thing or two about playing defense and of course coaching it. Here’s what he had to say about Borgen.
LGA: From the start of the season until now how have you seen him grow?
Gord Dineen: You know growth is definitely a good word for it and he’s come a long way. But I will say he was further ahead at the start of the season than I expected him to be. He came out of college and you know it’s just natural guys aren’t engaged in pro habits. Coming in here last year he learned a lot and I think that was a really good experience for him and I think he took those experiences into a summer program. He was in really good shape, started off camp very well in the rookie tournament, and you know playing with Rasmus Dahlin there he didn’t look out of place at all. I think it just carried over into the regular season. He’s been confident, he’s been assertive, decisive, and both with and without the puck so you know it’s been a real pleasant surprise.
I asked head coach Chris Taylor the same question at a different time.
Chris Taylor: We liked his size and his physicality, but we didn’t know how much upside he would have with the puck and his decision making especially as a young defenseman and we were pleasantly surprised. I thought at camp he had a pretty good camp and when he got here he got more comfortable in the ice time we’re giving him. We’re putting him in situations that aren’t ideal, but we think that he’s done a very good job with them. He keeps growing every day and getting better. He’s one guy that’s probably the most improved from the start of the year to now. He’s gaining confidence, not just his defensive side of the puck but his offensive side of the puck. He’s getting a lot of shot opportunities, skating with the puck a lot more, making headsy plays coming out of the defensive zone – not just off the glass and out. He’s making a lot of good plays and growing as a player.
LGA: He has the Olympics on his resume so it’s not like he’s new to the whole pro atmosphere.
Dineen: Yeah and that’s the good thing for him is that he does have those experiences but he’s earned them, you know. For him to have the Olympic experience he’s earned that opportunity to get there and through his play and just the type of kid he is. He’s not like a deer in the headlights as a young player, he looks poised and comfortable in the spotlight and he’s been very good.
LGA: He’s more of a defensive defenseman but he’s said that he wants to work on his offensive game, is that something that’s needed nowadays to move up to the NHL or is what he’s brought going to be good enough?
Dineen: I think being able to make plays with the puck is important, you can’t just be an off the glass defenseman anymore. You have to be able to make a good first pass, a good second pass, and be able to skate the puck out of the zone. You definitely have to make plays under pressure and offensively be able to read when you can add to the offense. In the offensive zone I think he’s really come a long way from what I’ve seen from the start of the year. He’s not afraid to step up and add to it so I think if that’s something he says he wants to work on he definitely has and he’s gotten better.
LGA: The coaching staff has often said mistakes are fine at this level because you can learn from them and go right back out for your next shift. It sure seems like Borgen doesn’t make that many mistakes.
Dineen: I think his mistakes are usually pretty calculated and you know they’re in a position where somebody can cover for him if he does make one. That’s sort of a real good trait of solid defenseman. When you’re not making mistakes sometimes you’re not noticed out there so he goes through a game sometimes you don’t really notice him because he’s not making mistakes. He’s moving the puck simply into forwards hands.
LGA: In the last two months the season is there anything you’re still looking for more from him or is it just kind of the little things at this time of year?
Dineen: I think just being an elite penalty killer. Five on five carries over into penalty killing so you know just being a lead shutdown defenseman, penalty killer, a guy that keeps on growing with the puck, and doing the things that he has been doing. Making plays under pressure. He doesn’t have to do great things, just do a lot of good things. Every team is looking for guys like that.
Speaking of being an elite penalty killer, the day after Christmas the Rochester Americans penalty kill unit was ranked 28th out of 31 teams in the league. In the first 30 games of the season the team bounced between 22nd and 28th overall. It was bad (obviously). Since then the penalty kill has been a continuous improvement and as of writing this the team is 6th overall in the league. Part of that success is the play of Borgen.
“He’s really good,” Chris Taylor said. “He has a long reach, he’s got a good stick. He gets mean in front of the net and blocks shots. At the start of the year he wasn’t really great at blocking shots but I think now that he’s learning the process and putting his body in harm’s way to block a shot it tells me that he’s working at it and he wants to get better at it.”
“Anything you can do to well round your game it only helps you,” MacWilliam said when asked about penalty kill work. “I think if he can key on some of those things he’ll be a hell of a defenseman.”
Matt Tennyson and Andrew MacWilliam have also been a big part of the second half success of the penalty kill. It’s possible you haven’t noticed Borgen on the penalty kill because he does a great job at it.
There’s a good chance you saw the fight Borgen was in with Ryan MacInnis of the Cleveland Monsters at the end of February since the video posted to Twitter has over 90k views. It may have surprised many but didn’t seem to surprise Borgen or any of his teammates.
Second bout of the Wednesday night @hockeyfights:
Will Borgen vs Ryan MacInnis pic.twitter.com/RRNbMYoeLm
— Let's Go Amerks (@LetsGoAmerks) February 21, 2019
I asked Borgen where that ranked in terms of notifications after the game on his phone compared to getting drafted or going to the Olympics. He said, “It was pretty close, college too. I had quite a few text messages and notifications after.”
His parents had a reaction too. “I think my mom said good game but I don’t really like fighting too much,” Borgen said. “I think my dad just asked how my hands were. Nothing too bad.”
While the fight may have been surprising and unexpected the level of physical play shouldn’t be for anyone that has watched him. He said, “I try to bring an edge every night by hitting and being physical in the defensive zone.”
“You know what, it translates to confidence,” Dineen said when asked about the fight and how it can help confidence. “He hasn’t done it in college since you know there’s no fighting there. It’s not as big a part of the game as it certainly used to be, but you know when you do fight, rise to the occasion, and you’ve shown the ability to handle yourself fine there is a little intimidation factor to it. I’m sure guys will think twice a little bit more when they go in the corners with Will or net front or wherever and I think it raises his confidence level too.”
When I was talking to Nathan Paetsch about the confidence level of Borgen when it came to playing a physical game he said, “You saw the fight, I think that gave him a big boost. It just kind of let him know he’s capable of that and when you do stuff like that other teams and players are going to notice. That’s going to give him more ice. Maybe that guy next time isn’t going to face wash him knowing that something can happen. It creates time and space for you and that’s going to be an important part of his game as a big strong defenseman.”
Borgen served a roughing penalty for dropping the gloves again in the game against Syracuse on Sunday afternoon. Cory Conacher gave Scott Wedgewood an extra slash after a simple back handed shot into the pads. Borgen immediately took exception and rode Conacher into the boards.
Borgen had taken offense to the extra tap that Conacher gave Wedgewood. pic.twitter.com/6N8pmI2Dw0
— Let's Go Amerks (@LetsGoAmerks) March 3, 2019
The only penalty was on Borgen and even though the penalty resulted in a power play goal against Rochester there wasn’t anyone upset at the play.
“He slashed our goalie,” Chris Taylor said after the game. “We’re here to defend each other. I’m not upset with Borgen, I’m upset that we didn’t kill it off.”
Borgen responded to the play saying, “They were calling penalties all night but I got the retaliation on there so it’s on me.”
Andrew MacWilliam is in his second season with the Amerks and has been the resident stand up, strong, defensive defenseman. He was paired with Borgen for majority of the first 35 games of the season. After a recent practice when I asked MacWilliam what he’s seen from the start of the season to now he said, “I think he’s a great skater and especially lately he’s added that physical side which he’s going to have to do for the rest of his career. That’s the one thing that at the beginning of the year that might have been lacking a little bit but he’s really found his groove there.”
“For him that’s how he’s going to have to play,” MacWilliam said. “He’s a really good skater but if he can add that physical side of the game that’s only going to help him.”
In 57 games Borgen has 8 points (2G+6A) but the points aren’t an expectation.
“We want to make sure he’s comfortable first and foremost with what he’s doing and supposed to be doing,” Chris Taylor said when asked about Borgen being more offensive. “Whatever happens is a bonus. Right now it’s a bonus, he’s handling the puck like a second and third year guy which is nice. We just want him to keep getting more confident and better in that aspect. In the AHL and NHL it’s more of a puck on the stick, not off the glass anymore. We want the defensemen to make plays and be comfortable making plays. His hockey sense is good right there now and he’s getting more comfortable as the year goes on.”
Borgen showed that confidence scoring a big goal in Syracuse on the road. Yannick Veilleux had the puck in the corner, spotted Borgen, delivered a perfect pass, and Borgen put it into the back of the net.
— Let's Go Amerks (@LetsGoAmerks) February 17, 2019
“He got it, he looked at the corner, and fired it in,” Chris Taylor talked about that goal. “That’s great, that’s what we need. We need goals like that from him. We want him joining the rush. He’s not just a defensive defenseman, we need him to be involved in the offense as well.”
The night before he almost had an assist early in the game with a great pass to Eric Cornel but it went off a post.
Great pass from Borgen to Cornel but somehow Ingram got a piece of it with his stick. pic.twitter.com/pZxVDa1FPM
— Let's Go Amerks (@LetsGoAmerks) February 16, 2019
He also scored a goal in October from a similar position.
Borgen never scored more than two goals in a season while playing college hockey, he’s already tied that. Borgen said, “I’ve never had too many goals in the year so it’s nice to get one.”
Development through winning are three words that have been spoken often since Jason Botterill, Randy Sexton, and Steve Greely took over management of the Buffalo Sabres organization. The winning part is something that has made this season easier for Borgen. Simply winning games during the regular season isn’t good enough, the next step is a long playoff run and a taste of what that experience is like.
When I asked how he thinks his season has been from the start until now he said, “It’s gone really good. Our team is doing really well and having a lot of success so it’s been easier on me and I’m assuming on other rookies too. We came into a good team and have good guys so it’s been fun.”
Beginning your career anywhere with a successful team is going to make everything just a little easier. One player that knows all about that is Nathan Paetsch. While the bulk of this is all about Borgen it can also help to look back at the career of Paetsch and how an early playoff run had an impact on his career. He’s a defensive defenseman that only scored double digit goals once in his career but has had pro success to know what it takes to move to the next level.
“I think especially for a young defenseman whenever you have a good team it’s easier,” Paetsch said. “A lot of mistakes will be magnified when you are always playing in your defensive zone. When you have a forward group that can sustain pressure deep and play more offensively then you build up more confidence as your season goes and it makes it a lot easier to get that confidence play at the pro level.”
The first pro season for Paetsch was the 2003/2004 season when the Rochester Americans went to the conference finals. He played along side familiar names like Jason Pominville, Jason Botterill, Derek Roy, Chris Taylor, Doug Janik, and had Ryan Miller in net. Paetsch has two Calder Cup championships on his resume while playing with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“I think you need to expect to be successful to be successful. If you think it’s just going to happen it’s not going to but when it gets embedded in you at such an early stage in your pro career you expect playoffs every year, you expect to go deep every year,” Paetsch said when I asked about how much early playoff experience helped in his career. “It’s just what you think hockey is and what you know. It gives you that burning desire to be successful for the rest of your career. I think some guys can fall into the trap of not making the playoffs for so many years and just being fine with it you know, and fortunately that hasn’t been the case of my career. I’ve had a lot of successful teams and deep runs have been part of my career. It’s something that you know on a personal level you want more and more as you’re currently going.”
Once you get a taste of it you want more. Paetsch added, “Gives you a burning hunger, definitely gives you that itch.”
“I think the skating with the puck and confidence with the puck. When Borgs is successful his feet are moving,” Paetsch said when asked what he’s seen from Borgen this season. “You see that he’s got a really efficient gaps and he closes really quick. A lot of times instead of backing up into the blue you see that he’s really good at taking that angle and not giving up the red. When he’s successful he doesn’t have to play in his defensive zone because he’s constantly stopping them before they get there and being able to transition to more offensive zone time. When the puck does get into the zone I think his feet have really come along skating the puck out of the zone.”
Paetsch never played college hockey but knows the American League is a different level of play. “Guys are bigger, faster, stronger at this the league,” he said. “Guys are relentless on the forecheck so as a defenseman when teams are relentless on the forecheck you just have to be that more efficient getting back and getting that extra step. I think that’s something he’s done a good job with.”
The Amerks skate four lines and three sets of defenseman which provides pretty equal five on five playing time. Borgen averages 18 to 21 minutes per game. Time on ice is tracked internally by teams but isn’t publicly available. I asked and Chris Taylor didn’t have a problem offering the number when I asked what Borgen averages.
Taylor said, “We like to use all of our players. That’s the only way I think you’re going to go far is to make sure you use everybody.”
Here’s what was written about Borgen when he arrived in Rochester at the end of last season. The way he was described is exactly how he’s turned out as a player.