Borgen seizing long-awaited opportunity with Sabres

After being buried on the organizational depth chart, the 24-year-old is off to a great start at the NHL level

It’s been a long wait, but Will Borgen finally seems to have cemented himself as a member of the Buffalo Sabres’ defensive top-six. After spending two full seasons with the Rochester Americans, the 24-year-old got his chance to show what he can do at the NHL level amid a rash of COVID-19 positives tests on the Buffalo blue line (and elsewhere).

Dating back to last season, fans clamored to see the 2014 fourth-round draft pick get an NHL opportunity after being leaned-on as a defensive specialist (and performing quite well in that role) in Rochester. During the 2019-20 campaign, Jason Botterill’s penchant for hoarding depth defensemen (and the Sabres incredible lack of any long-term injuries that year) prevented this opportunity from taking place.

In four games with the blue-and-gold this season, Borgen has posted excellent underlying metrics, particularly from a goal-prevention standpoint. The sample is obviously very small, but to this point, he leads all Sabres defenders with an xGA/60 rate of 1.15, and his overall xG rate of 60.21-percent is second only to Jake McCabe.

Following last Saturday’s victory over the New Jersey Devils, head coach, Ralph Krueger gave a glowing review of Borgen and how he sees him as a strong complimentary fit next to Rasmus Dahlin. As a pairing in that game, the two of them posted an even-strength xGF percentage of 68.51, which is outstanding.

Ignoring the fact that Krueger’s system seems to discourage defensemen joining the offensive rush, a defensively talented entity like Borgen could help Dahlin do a little more “free-wheeling” in that regard. Now that McCabe could be sidelined for an extended period of time following the leg injury (ACL, MCL, and meniscus to be exact) he sustained this past weekend, Borgen’s arrival has come at a very good time.

As it stands, the Sabres were already short on blueliners who displayed consistent proficiency in the defensive zone. It goes without saying that you would rather have both he and McCabe as healthy options, but Borgen should be able to slot into that now vacated shutdown role rather nicely. He’s also serving on the penalty-kill (quite proficiently in fact), another area where the Sabres will miss McCabe’s presence.

Though Borgen did miss last night’s contest against the New York Islanders with a reported hand-injury, he is expected to return to the lineup soon, perhaps as early as tonight.

This is all positive (aside from losing McCabe, or course), but it begs the question – why did it take a widespread COVID-19 infection for Borgen to see NHL ice time? There is an argument to be made that his extended development at the NCAA and AHL levels are the reason why his transition to NHL play has been rather seamless. Conversely, there is nothing really different about his game this year versus last, and it brings up concerns pertaining to Buffalo’s evaluation of their in-house talent.

The fact that the organization felt the need to add two additional depth pieces this offseason in Matt Irwin and Brandon Davidson exacerbates this concern. Adding depth in a year that could see major losses as a result of the pandemic was smart. That said, penciling two fringe players over a young entity that had more than earned his chance, is rather odd.

It’s borderline egregious, given how much better he’s looked than said veteran contemporaries, by comparison. As it stands, Irwin ranks dead-last among Sabres defenseman with an xGF rate of 41.49 through seven games-played. Davidson is second-last at 46.56-percent, though he’s only played in two contests so far.

Without over-fixating on the circumstance, Borgen got his chance and barring a cataclysmic regression, it looks like he’s here to stay. His timing is also advantageous when you consider his upcoming status as an RFA this summer. He certainly won’t receive anything substantial in respect to dollars and term, but who knows if the Sabres (or any other team for that matter) would have given him another contract had he not received this circumstantially unorthodox NHL opportunity.

Advanced metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick