European free-agent signings are always unknown commodities, and Andreas Borgman was no different. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed the 22-year-old undrafted defenceman after just one year in Sweden's top-tier league. But three preseason and three regular-season games into the year, it's easy to see why the Leafs took a shot at him.
Toronto went through a long rough patch and collected an outstanding forward trio in Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner along the way. However, they are not the only reason why the Maple Leafs ranked fifth in the league in goals, scoring more than three per game. Rather, head coach Mike Babcock turned his team into a prototype for modern-day hockey.
And that's where Borgman comes in.
Some of today's most successful offensive teams, including the Maple Leafs and the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have implemented the “Total Hockey” concept. If you are not familiar with it, Jack Han explained it very well here for Hockey-Graphs.com. The idea is simple: every skater on the ice can fill any one of the skater positions, and will do so when the situation calls for it – that includes the defenders.
Along with that – and as a result – these teams become very possession-focused and excel at holding the puck for long periods of time.
While Borgman is not necessarily the player you will find behind the opponent's net with frequency, like it's the case with Jake Gardiner, Borgman helps in many other ways. Most importantly, he manages to keep his team in puck possession.
(Note: I won't go into numbers due to tiny sample size, instead focusing entirely on the evil thing that is the eye test.)
Keeping the puck on offence
One of Borgman's greatest standout skills is his ability to read the play and jump in to force early turnovers, either in the offensive zone or the neutral zone.
In the sequence above, Borgman is on his way back to defend a zone-entry attempt by the New Jersey Devils. He sees the pass from the defender coming close enough to jump in, and he forces the turnover before the Leaf's blue line. Marner then plays the puck deep, which allows the Devils to recover it, but Borgman jumps in once again to force a turnover in the offensive zone.
This is in no way luck, but simply an important skill that Borgman possesses and uses frequently.
Here, Nylander throws the puck toward the net but misses wide. It is easy to see that the Winnipeg Jets' defenders will need a couple of seconds to get to the puck, but Borgman is not even in the frame yet. From his point of view, it is extremely difficult to determine whether he will get to the puck first or should drop back instead. He reads the play correctly and keeps the Leafs in possession.
A modern, skilled defender
If keeping possession is not enough for you, Borgman can certainly do more. Though he hasn't produced much in what's still a small sample size, Borgman shows flashes of his upside, which supports what we know he's done in Sweden in the past.
His ability to pinch and intercept pucks before his opponents can exit the D-zone or enter the O-zone is no different from the skill displayed above. Borgman has excellent offensive awareness and is a very smart player overall, allowing him to read the play and make quick decisions. If he gets the freedom and confidence to use that skill, his scoring upside is no lower than that of Jake Gardiner.
And there's more.
As you can see above, Borgman can be an extremely confident and effective puck-carrier, both on zone exits and entries. While going coast-to-coast is much harder to do in the NHL, we have seen flashes of this ability in Toronto as well.
In the sequence above, Borgman does an excellent job retrieving the puck and creating space for himself. Once he realizes he's running into traffic, he uses a quick turn to again create space and open up options for himself.
This is not only promising when we look at Borgman in a vacuum, but also if we consider whom he's replacing. Those who dislike Martin Marincin for the player he is mostly do so because of his inability to move the puck out of the defensive zone. This just happens to be one of the skills that contribute to Borgman's high upside.
But speaking of Marincin, Borgman's first weeks haven't been all perfect.
Defending the rush
Marincin's big strength is his ability to defend the rush, using his long reach and decent mobility. Borgman, despite being a solid skater, seems to struggle with that early in the season.
Let's take another look at a video sequence from above, where Borgman keeps the puck in the offensive zone with a perfect pinch against the Devils.
What starts out as a strong offensive play quickly turns into a goal against on what was originally nothing more than a dump-out. Calle Rosen is the one who makes it dangerous, but one of Borgman's big weaknesses is exposed as well: his transition game.
The second that Miles Wood, New Jersey #44, accelerates toward Borgman, Wood becomes his man to cover – even if he expects Rosen to grab the puck and move it back up ice. He fails to do so, however, and doesn't transition to forward movement quickly enough, nor does he gain enough speed to have any kind of defensive impact on the play.
This, unfortunately, is not a one-time thing.
Unfortunately, Borgman's transition happens before the camera reaches him, but it's still clear to see that he loses an incredibly amount of speed when transitioning from backward to forward.
This, by the way, is one of the main issues Leafs prospect Andrew Nielsen has, which has been holding him back at the professional level for a long time.
Another familiar struggle is his passing on the breakout. The last European D-man to struggle with outlet passes despite having all the skills to execute them successfully: Nikita Zaitsev (click here for more on Zaitsev).
Again, we are looking at a sequence shown as a positive above. Except when we look at the full play, it ends in a major turnover and zone entry for Winnipeg. Borgman has the skill to get himself out of pressure, but he's been having issues with outlet passes. Perhaps some more time to adjust will be all it takes. Again, the raw skills are there.
All the minutes but no opportunity
If there is one thing Borgman can't complain about, it's a lack of opportunity. Right? Well, not quite.
Though Babcock has been giving him lots of ice time in all situations, he's struggling with a lack of opportunity. Doesn't make sense? Then take a look at this piece on Connor Carrick, who had the exact same issue in his 2016-17 rookie season.
Borgman is a player who fits the Leafs' system extremely well and who can contribute offensively. There is just one problem with that: Except for Ron Hainsey, all of the Leafs' current defencemen are known for their two-way skill and ability to contribute offensively.
However, even in a “Total Hockey” concept, there are different levels of risk a team could take. While every player can be a part of the attack, not every player will always be a central part of the attack. What that often leads to is one defender needing to sit back a bit, still contributing offensively when the opportunity arises, but not taking major risks.
Paired with Carrick, who is getting more freedom this year, Borgman is currently more in that “stay-at-home” role (in a very loose sense). So, don't expect any huge contributions just yet.
Borgman will need some time to adjust. He's just 22 years old and in his second season in a top-tier league — and the potential is there.