By Ryan J. Harr
Much of the talk this season when discussing the Rochester Americans’ defensive corps has been surrounding Swedish sensation Lawrence Pilut and veteran Zach Redmond. It seems only fitting as the duo is tied for Rochester’s scoring lead and pace all American Hockey League defensemen with 22 points each as the Amerks remain in first place in the North Division.
But then there’s rookie blueliner Will Borgen, who’s in hist first full pro season, and might not show up on the scoresheet as often as his two fellow defensemen. But much like Pilut and Redmond, however, he’s contributing in other ways, and it’s his continuous improvement that the Buffalo Sabres organization is noticing.
“Will is one of the few young prospects that understands exactly what his identity is,” said Sabres assistant general manager and Amerks general manager Randy Sexton. “Often times with younger players, it can take them awhile to develop and really find their role.”
“From not only last season to training camp but from camp to now, he has improved drastically,” Amerks head coach Chris Taylor said. “His defensive habits are night and day than they were, but even his offensive game has taken some significant strides. I think the biggest thing for him, though, is his confidence is constantly growing, and that is most important as a young player.”
“With Will, he knows he needs to be a good, defensive-defenseman,” added Sexton. “He understands that he also needs to be a tough, physical, hard-to-play-against player, and he is embracing that while improving in every aspect of his game.”
And he’s done just that since arriving in Rochester for a brief stint at the tail-end of last season following the completion of a three-year collegiate career at St. Cloud State University. He recorded eight shots in eight games with the Amerks while on an Amateur Tryout, just two days after inking a three-year, entry-level NHL contract with the Buffalo Sabres on March 25, 2018.
The experience, albeit brief, paid dividends as the 21-year-old headed home for the off-season.
“Getting just a small taste of professional hockey helped a lot going into the summer months,” said Borgen. “Meeting some of the players who were here and playing some games was really beneficial.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman enjoyed his best season as a junior when he finished the year with two goals and 13 assists for a career-high 15 points in 36 games with the Huskies while helping the team to an NCHC championship as well as an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“When I first arrived here at the end of the season last year, it wasn’t exactly easy,” said Borgen. “There was a lot going on in my life, but the guys immediately welcomed me and made me feel part of the team, which helped a lot.”
“There were a lot of things that were going through my head at the time,” recalled Borgen. “Being on a new team with a new organization in a new city, the unknown factor and unfamiliarity with everything, leaving college and turning pro. Once I was able to get on the ice and play some games, it was just a normal hockey game after that, which kind of put my mind at ease.”
Prior to joining the Amerks, Borgen was named the National College Hockey Conference’s Defensive Defenseman of the Year and was selected to the All-NCHC Honorable Mention team. He was also one of four collegiate players nationally to be named to the 2018 United States Olympic Men’s Hockey Team.
“I was a sponge last year,” Borgen said. “I took in a lot in my time at each of the various settings. The older players and coaches at college and here helped me out a ton. At the Olympics, it was such a unique but really awesome experience as I was able to learn despite not playing in any games.”
Much like the previous summers, the Moorhead, Minn., native went home at the end of the season, but this time he went home with some professional hockey experience.
“The training I did was pretty similar to years past, but I wanted to improve my overall game,” Borgen said. “I had a trainer, who I worked pretty closely with, and skated with Chris VandeVelde, Matt Cullen and other college and high school players in the area.”
In addition to his off-season training regimen, Borgen participated in both the Sabres’ annual Development Camp and Prospects Challenge, which helped boost his confidence.
“Playing against his peers definitely helped him,” said Amerks assistant coach Gord Dineen, who oversees the team’s defensemen. “Attending both those events helped show him where he fits in with players his own age, and I believe it showed him he has a leg up on them as he also had a small taste of pro hockey.”
Through nearly two months of his rookie campaign, Borgen has dressed for all 19 games and has added five points (1+4), which leads all the club’s first-year players. Borgen tallied his first career point, an assist, on Oct. 19 before scoring his first pro goal at Belleville the next night.
“I don’t score very often, but it was fun to find the back of the net.”
For now, Borgen will continue doing what he does best: learning and growing his game every day.