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2021 Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25: Henrik Borgström at 11

Can the Finnish center finally translate the tantalizing skill flashed in the NCAA to the NHL?

NHL: MAR 29 Panthers at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Second City Hockey’s 2021-22 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2021. The rankings are determined by a composite score from all four SCH writers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. All four ballots will be released after the series is completed.

Saying that Stan Bowman is extremely fond of acquiring former first-round players from other organizations feels like an understatement at this point. Some of these have been successful for the Blackhawks (Connor Murphy, Nick Leddy), some less so (David Rundblad, Brendan Perlini, Slater Koekkoek, Nikita Zadorov), and others are still pending (Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander). For many of these players, they underachieved with their former teams and the rationale is that a change of scenery would help them realize their original potential. Despite the mixed results, the strategy is a good one considering the Blackhawks’ loss of quality prospects and picks during the last half a decade of chasing / winning the Cup, and and that’s it’s why it’s no surprise the Blackhawks picked up a player like Henrik Borgström this past season.

Borgström’s origin is slightly different from many of the other reclamation projects because, while he was drafted in the first round (23rd overall) by the Florida Panthers in 2016, he was an over-ager in his second year of draft eligibility. Some of this is due to an injury that limited Borgström to just 21 games in the U18 Finnish league before his first draft opportunity, but it was mostly due to growing pains — most likely literal ones, as he reportedly grew about 10 inches in less than two years. From the start, Borgström has been a late bloomer, and the Blackhawks are hoping that they’ve acquired him at just the right time to align with his NHL readiness.

Being a former first-round pick isn’t the only reason Borgström caught Bowman’s eye: Borgström was also one of the most dynamic players in the NCAA in recent years. In 2016-17, Borgström took the NCAA by storm, producing 42 points (22 G, 21 A) in 37 games with the University of Denver, and playing an integral role in winning the National Championship. Dubbed “The Artist” by his teammates, he often dazzled with his offensive creativity and puck skills, dangling through opposing players to make them look ridiculous.

Borgström spent another season at Denver where he improved his offensive output to lead his team with 52 points (23 G, 29 A) in 40 games, earning him a spot as a Hobey Baker finalist (Blackhawks hopeful Adam Gaudette won that year as a junior). His combination of skill, style, and size just overpowered his NCAA peers, and it wasn’t totally hyperbolic for Bowman to call Borgström, “one of the best college players of the last 10 years.” It felt like he was destined to be a top-six forward in the NHL sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, Borgström has had a difficult time adjusting to professional hockey. He made his NHL debut during the 2017-18 season, and then played in only 58 NHL games across the next three seasons, tallying just 19 points (9 G, 10 A). Borgström’s skating caused issues — what was decent speed in the NCAA wasn’t up to the pace of AHL/NHL players — and he was more hesitant with the puck, which resulted in turnovers and misplays. On top of that, Borgström had never been particularly strong defensively, and he was even more exposed at the higher game speed.

Borgström spent his second professional season primarily playing with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, and his decline continued as his production fell to barely over 0.4 points per game. This was especially concerning because he’d played very well in the AHL previously — almost a point-per-game in 24 games during the 2018-19 season — so it was obvious that his confidence had taken a big hit. There were many who felt like Borgström had given up by the end of 2019-20, and it wasn’t shocking that he opted to go back to Finland after that.

It does seem like returning home worked in Borgström’s favor — at least so far. After a slow start in the 2020-21 season, he tallied 21 points (11 G, 10 A) in 30 Liiga games for HIFK and also registered five points (2 G, 3 A) in eight postseason games while splitting time between second and third-line center. Borgström seemed to focus on more on simplifying his game as he regained confidence, and he showed flashes of his high-end creativity and skill as the season progressed. Defense still isn’t his strong suit and his skating may still be a point of concern, but Borgström saw improvement in his positioning, stickwork, physicality (adding about 10 pounds of muscle likely helped there), and straight-line speed.

The relative lack of dynamic forwards with top-six potential is why Borgström is ranked so high, despite concerns over previous inability to transition well to professional leagues in North America.

What’s next

Borgström will likely be given every opportunity to grab a top-nine role with the Blackhawks this upcoming season. The competition is going to be tough, though, as the Blackhawks have a surplus of NHL-ready forwards battling for only a few spots available. He was given a two-year contract, but at already 24, this is close to the last chance for Borgström to show he can put it together in the NHL.

Also, Borgström’s placement may be tied to what happens with Dylan Strome — another former first-round pick acquisition. The issue is that Borgström may have the same problems Strome has had — inconsistent play away from the puck, reliance on higher quality of teammate, skating concerns, etc. — with less offensive upside. It appears that Strome has fallen out of favor with the Blackhawks coaching staff, though, possibly opening the way for new players like Borgström. Jonathan Toews’ status could impact Borgström (and Strome) as well.

Either way, the Blackhawks just have to hope that the spark that was so bright in college can be re-ignited in the NHL.