TORONTO – They say there’s a never a bad day in the NHL.
Just ask Henrik Borgstrom, who reported for his first day of duty with the Florida Panthers and had no complaints about a less glamorous work environment than the one he left behind at the University of Denver.
The grey folding chair that served as his dressing room stall? No problem! The fact it was placed directly in front of a functioning door? Who cares!
“It feels super great,” said Borgstrom, fresh off signing his entry-level contract. “I mean, I’m so excited. It feels kind of surreal right now.”
The Panthers believe they have a burgeoning star in the 20-year-old centre. They plan to have him take warmups at Air Canada Centre before Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs and then make his NHL debut in Ottawa on Thursday.
It’s one thing for teams like Buffalo (Casey Mittelstadt) and Chicago (Dylan Sikura) to throw college kids directly into the lineup. It’s quite another for Florida to do it while trying to chase down New Jersey for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I think you get a guy like that, who’s had such a great career in college, we feel he’s ready to be a good pro. Not just a pro,” said Panthers coach Bob Boughner. “I think if anything it’s going to help us. It’s going to inject some youth and enthusiasm and some fresh legs into our lineup at this time of year.”
Borgstrom was Denver’s leading scorer this season with 52 points in 40 games and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. While he still feels there’s room to pack muscle on a lanky six-foot-three frame, he projects as a potential draft day steal after going 23rd overall in 2016.
You couldn’t wipe the smile off the Finn’s face at the end of a whirlwind 72 hours that started with a loss to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament and ended up with him sitting on a folding chair beside Roberto Luongo – the star goalie who was drafted into the NHL two months before he was born.
“It’s like a roller-coaster,” said Borgstrom. “First on Sunday night you were crying with 30 of your teammates. Everybody’s just down. Then the next day you notice that you’ve got to be going again and there might be a new possibility for you.
“It was weird, but I’m just trying to cherish the opportunity.”
It says something about Florida’s high hopes that Boughner intends to play him at centre, presumably in the No. 3 spot behind Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck. They are not easing him in. Borgstrom is bracing himself for a pace that exceeds a Finland-Canada world junior tuneup in 2017 – to date, the fastest game he’s been part of.
“I’ve never played at this level,” he said. “I’ve never even practised at this level.”
He’s in the big show now. Time to jump off the dock and start swimming.
The surest sign he’d gained quick acceptance from new teammates came in the good-natured chirping he took for his spartan locker-room setup in the visitor’s room at ACC.
“I know guys are all excited about it and that’s what I like about this team,” said Boughner. “There’s no one sitting around saying, ‘Oh, there’s a new guy coming in taking someone’s job.’ They’re excited to have him here and I think that’s important.
“We’re all trying to get to the same spot. We’re trying to get in the playoffs, and I think he can help us.”