How can the Blackhawks get the most out of Henrik Borgstrom?
It’s probably not at the end of the ice you’d expect.
It’s always easier to uncover what a player can’t do.
Take Henrik Borgstrom, for example. Since he’ll be turning 25 in August, it’s probably fair to assume that the Finnish forward won’t become the offensive dynamo he was expected to be when the Florida Panthers drafted him 23rd overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Having played just 52 games last season while tallying only four goals and three assists for the Blackhawks, it doesn’t appear that Borgstrom will become the player the Blackhawks were hoping they’d landed in a trade last year, either:
Stan Bowman: "We are receiving a very exciting, young player with a bright future in Henrik Borgstrom. He is a high-end talent and we think he has the ability to be a big time player for us."— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 8, 2021
But Borgrstrom remains under contract with the Blackhawks for another season with a measly cap hit of $1 million, which makes it seem like he’ll at least be in consideration for a roster spot with the ‘21-22 version of the team.
So, let’s see if there’s something Borgstrom can do at the NHL level.
Much of the entire inspiration for this piece came from the tweet below, courtesy of a former occupant of this internet space:
While researching stuff for Patrice Bergeron, I discovered that Henrik Borgstrom has the 12th best xGA among forwards, and the 5th best relative mark despite starting just 41% of his shifts in the o-zone. Is he really a checking center at heart? Worth finding out?— Sam Fels, But Who's Buyin'? (@FelsGate) April 18, 2022
And Fels is right: Borgstrom’s rate of 1.97 expected goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time was 12th in the NHL among forwards who skated at least 250 minutes last season (a sample of 456 players).
Go down the list of every possession-based metric available at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll find that Borgstrom’s “relative” statistics are always to the positive: shots, goals, shot attempts, scoring chances, high danger chances — all of them. The easiest summary of what all that means is that the Blackhawks had better possession of the puck — in terms of quality and quantity — when Borgstrom was on the ice. And that comes despite Borgstrom having an offensive zone start percentage of 39.5, which is 10th among the 15 Blackhawks forwards who skated 250 minutes at 5-on-5 last season.
Borgstrom’s player card from JFresh Hockey, which utilizes data from Top Down Hockey, also supports the notion of Borgstrom’s defensive prowess:
Better than 99 percent of the league at even-strength defense? That’ll play. This card also offers one other caveat to Borgstrom’s numbers: his quality of competition is in the 45th percentile, which means that just over half of the league faced more difficult opponents than Borgstrom did.
For another visualization of Borgstrom’s defensive impact, here’s a pair of heat maps from the Hockey Viz website. Up first is with Borgstrom on the ice, when the Blackhawks expected goals against rate dropped by almost 20 percent:
When Borgstrom was on the ice, teams had a lower rate of shots from the most dangerous part of the ice, directly in front of the Blackhawks net. And here’s what that looks like with Borgstrom on the bench:
(Side note: Here’s where I’ll take a moment and use this as another chip in the ol’ data vs. eye test debate. Pretty sure I joked several times this season about forgetting that Borgstrom was on the team and didn’t think he had a single trait worth mentioning. But this suggests there could be something else worth exploring here. Not a guarantee, of course. It’s something, though, which remains better than nothing.)
It’s also possible that those numbers were an outlier, of course. Borgstrom’s relative numbers were also below the team rates during his 50 games with the ‘18-19 Panthers in Borgstrom’s rookie season. He started in the offensive zone 55.85 percent of the time that season, though, so perhaps it’s also possible that Borgstrom was being placed in situations where offensive players are expected to thrive, but that may not be what his strong suit is in the NHL.
This isn’t to say that Borgstrom is worthy of long-term consideration in Chicago, either. Perhaps Borgstrom is utilized in a defensive role next season and becomes just good enough for the Blackhawks to flip him at the deadline for the picks and/or prospects they’re stockpiling as part of this planned rebuild. If not, then Borgstrom’s contract is up in 2023 and he’ll become a restricted free agent that Chicago could allow to walk. Minimal loss, if that’s the case.
Whether it’s for the long-term or just until the next trade deadline, though, the Blackhawks shouldn’t yet dismiss Borgstrom outright just because he’s not going to be lighting up scoreboards every game. There’s more than one end of the ice where forwards can contribute.