Will Borgen and the Sabres’ defensive logjam

An overcrowded blue line in Buffalo will likely keep the 22-year-old in the AHL for another year

As Jason Botterill’s overhaul of the Buffalo Sabres’ defensive corps has seemingly come to a close this summer, fans have speculated as to which players could be moved out, and which will comprise the team’s top-six. For the most part, there has been a rough consensus, especially pertaining to the idea that the team needs to move at least two bodies out prior to the start of the 2019-20 season.

With arguably a dozen NHL-capable assets currently under contract on the back end, 22-year-old blueliner, Will Borgen has become something of a forgotten man. That’s not to insinuate that fans have suddenly become unaware of his presence (or value, for that matter), but seldom will you see his name projected among the anticipated starters. With a revamped slate of top-six players, and a handful of under-performing veterans on NHL contracts behind them, the Sabres will almost certainly leave the 22-year-old in Rochester, barring a rash of injuries.

By many accounts, Borgen is ready for NHL action. Toward the end of last season he got a four-game taste of the big league, in which he acquitted himself nicely. His billing as a steady, defensively reliable presence translated well in that short stint. Regardless, another season in the AHL could serve him well.

In speaking with Keith Wozniak of Let’s Go Amerks, he was able to shed some light on where Borgen stands in his development, and which areas of his game saw improvement in 2018-19, his first full season in the AHL.

“One noticeable difference and improvement from the start of last season was the way he started to play the puck in the offensive zone,” he said. “He’s enjoyed playing a simple game, as the cliche goes, in simply clearing the zone. As the season went along he started participating more in the offensive zone as well.”

As Borgen has continued to develop, some have voiced a concern that he was somewhat one-dimensional. Net-front responsibility has always been an unquestioned area of strength, but the jury was still out (and perhaps still is, to an extent), regarding his ability to contribute offensively.

When asked point-blank if he saw enough last season to believe that Borgen is ready for a full season with the big club, Wozniak measured the situation next to a couple recent comparable players (situationally, not necessarily in terms of skill-set).

“Asking if someone is ready for a full time NHL role is always a tricky question. History has shown that development and perfecting your game in the AHL has better results for a longer NHL career. I think Brendan Guhle and Lawrence Pilut are two recent examples where there was a rush to get them up after a great start to the season and then they hit a lull of sorts. Having said that, yes, I think Borgen could play a defensive role full time in the NHL, but starting in Rochester and dominating for half a season would have better long term results.”

One thing that should be made clear here, is that this is a good problem for the Sabres to have. For what seems like an eternity, the organization has not simultaneously possessed NHL-level defensive talent, as well as considerable depth in the prospect pipeline. Prior to the arrival of Rasmus Dahlin and Lawrence Pilut, Borgen was viewed by many as the team’s top defensive prospect (Dahlin was never really a prospect per se, but the sentiment remains).

As nice of a player as he is, that didn’t exactly bode well for the team’s future on the blue line. Now that there is adequate talent (young talent, at that) ahead of him, his development doesn’t need to be rushed in any way. Still, at first glance, it’s unclear how he fits into the fold, long-term, on the right side.

Colin Miller is only 26 years old, and there are three years remaining on his current deal. Rasmus Ristolainen’s contract also takes him through the 2021-22 season, and regardless of the rumors perpetually hovering around his name, until he isn’t, he’s part of the fold. Newly acquired youngster, Henri Jokiharju currently projects to the a top-four asset in the very near future (if he one isn’t already).

So, what does this all mean from an asset management perspective? Borgen will turn 23 in December, and his “value window” isn’t as wide-open as it might appear. His eventual fate could indirectly depend on how Brandon Montour performs this season. This will be the final year of his current $3.387 million AAV contract. He’s likely in line for a significant raise next summer.

If he looks more like the player who struggled at times last season with the Anaheim Ducks, rather than the competent asset we saw after he was traded to Buffalo, then Botterill may be less inclined to extend him, especially if Borgen (a cost-controlled commodity, of which the organization has very few) continues to show that he’s ready to be a top-six player.

On the flip side, should Montour do enough to earn a long-term extension, Borgen’s window as a potentially valuable trade asset could close after next summer. Adding to his increasingly unclear trajectory with the organization, is the added depth which Botterill has procured on the defensive side of the prospect pool. Sure, in this scenario, the team could keep him to serve as the seventh defenseman, but if a market exists, a trade might make more sense, especially with the team’s roster construction at forward far from complete.

With an already young core in place, on top of what appears to be a re-stocked war chest of futures, there is a possibility that a very talented young player (who at one point found himself at, or near, the top of the prospect depth chart), could ultimately end up being the odd-man out. While his presence in the organization has recently become a bit of an afterthought for some (given all of the shiny new additions), his continued growth as a player, and a transactional asset, will be something worth monitoring next season.