WINNIPEG – They may be the most memorable four minutes of ice time Andreas Borgman has ever received.
When the defenceman made his Swedish Hockey League debut with Timra IK at age 17, he sat on the bench for more than half a period before getting his first shift. As he recalls it now with a chuckle, he only fleetingly touched the ice beyond that.
It was not an ideal way to shake out the butterflies that came with competing against men for the first time in his life.
“It was the first game so I guess they just wanted to give me a few shifts and see how I handled it,” said Borgman. “I guess I wasn’t that ready yet.”
He can expect a little different treatment while trying to take the next step with the Toronto Maple Leafs. They believe he’s ready for a turn in the regular rotation and will start Wednesday’s season opener against the Jets on the third pairing with Connor Carrick.
The 22-year-old beat out compatriot Calle Rosén for the job – calling it a “dream come true” to start the season as a NHLer. What set Borgman apart was his sturdiness; he’s built like a truck and was more than willing to throw around his six-foot, 212-pound frame during pre-season play.
“My buddy is a fireman,” said head coach Mike Babcock, conjuring an analogy for what he likes about Borgman. “He always tells me: You drive a big vehicle, no matter how many airbags are in the little vehicle, the big vehicle wins every time. Well, when you’re 230 and you’re bumping into 190, the bigger guy wins.”
The Leafs weren’t entirely sure how NHL-ready Borgman and Rosén would be after putting on a full-court press to sign them in the spring. In the words of general manager Lou Lamoriello, that was still an “unknown” even after director of player evaluation Jim Paliafito spent months following their progress.
“We obviously have not been disappointed,” Lamoriello added.
They have significantly boosted the organization’s depth at its most vulnerable position. By design or not, Toronto appears to have hit on a market inefficiency by plucking Nikita Zaitsev from the KHL in 2016 and signing Borgman, Rosén and forward Miro Aaltonen as European free agents this year.
Not only did each of those players arrive more developed than a typical (non-Auston Matthews) draft pick, they also came over on affordable entry-level contracts – giving management the ability to move them freely between the NHL and American Hockey League without having to clear waivers.
Rosén was sent to the Marlies as the last cut in camp on Tuesday afternoon, but will almost certainly be back with the big team at some point this season.
Amazingly, neither he nor Borgman was even selected in the NHL Draft just a few years ago. Borgman recalls hearing whispers about some interest at that time and says he’s carried a little chip on his shoulder ever since.
“I don’t know how they find seven rounds of players better than those two guys,” said Carrick. “I like the way they move. I like the way they play the game. Both of them are strong talents. … That’s why it’s imperfect, right?
“That’s the jobs of organizations to kind of beat the game; draft well and then sign the guys that nobody else did that even you missed.”
Borgman’s big breakthrough really only came last season. He won a championship with HV71, earned individual recognition as the SHL’s rookie of the year and was called on to play games with the national team.
There have already been some nervous moments since he arrived in North America and pulled on a Leafs sweater in pre-season. He still finds himself thinking more than reacting. He figures it’ll take more time to adjust to a new system, new teammates and the smaller rink.
On Wednesday night at Bell MTS Centre, there’ll also be quite a bit going through his mind – and belly – in the minutes leading up to puck drop. Fortunately, Babcock will probably give him more than four minutes of ice time to get comfortable.
“I’m happy that I made it this far and now I just want to keep going,” said Borgman. “Work hard, and hopefully be on the roster all (season).”