Only one thing perplexed elite Florida Panthers prospect Henrik Borgstrom in his early transition from his native Finland to the U.S.
Big hits? No, those were fine.
Small talk? That was confusing.
“We don’t really have that in Finland,” said Borgstrom, a 20-year-old center and the Panthers’ 2016 first-round pick. “It’s kind of weird. You are in a grocery store, and someone will ask, ‘How are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’”
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Borgstrom left his hometown of Helsinki last season to attend the University of Denver, where as a freshman, he led the Pioneers to the NCAA Division I national title.
Denver beat Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in the final in April, and Borgstrom produced 43 points — including 22 goals — in 37 games, earning All-American honors. This year, he had 23 points in his first 15 games, ranking third in the nation with 10 goals.
Just when Borgstrom will leave Denver to join the Panthers in the NHL is open to question, but Denver coach Jim Montgomery believes this will be Borgstrom’s final collegiate season.
“Ultimately it’s up to [the Panthers] and him, but I would be surprised if he needs another [collegiate] year,” Montgomery said. “He’s going to need a new challenge.”
Montgomery said that Borgstrom has matured greatly since last year.
“When he got here, all he knew was pain and hunger,” Montgomery said. “He would be the guy walking into class with a sandwich and a banana instead of waking up earlier so he could have time for breakfast. He lived his life minute to minute.
“Now he has learned how to plan and how to take care of himself.”
While college life has been an adjustment, hockey has always come easy for Borgstrom, who grew up around the sport. His paternal uncle was a pro player in Finland, and Borgstrom’s father was a youth-league coach.
After Borgstrom starred for Finland’s U-17 and U-19 national teams, word reached the Denver coaching staff about this tall and slender whiz kid in Europe.
Denver won a recruiting battle with Boston University, signing the 6-3 standout. Borgstrom was an immediate sensation, but he has since gotten stronger, adding weight from 175 to 195 pounds.
Montgomery sees Borgstrom eventually playing at 205 pounds, and the rest of the hockey package is all there. Borgstrom has “terrific hands” and is a “strong skater,” according to a Hockey News scouting report.
Borgstrom, who has been to South Florida twice — in the fall of 2016 and 2017 for development camps — will join two other prominent Finns once he signs with the Panthers: Aleksander Barkov and Henrik Haapala.
Barkov, Florida’s first-line center and top overall player, has never met Borgstrom in person, but he sent him a congratulatory text when he heard the Panthers had drafted him.
But there’s another connection between them — Barkov’s father coached Borgstrom in Finland.
As for Haapala, 23, he and Borgstrom have already bonded while playing for the Panthers in development camp. And while Haapala is a promising young forward, Borgstrom’s ceiling is much higher.
Montgomery said that Borgstrom’s style reminds him of a cross between Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Datsyuk — Jagr because of his length and the way he handles the puck and Datsyuk because of his creativity.
Borgstrom’s nickname is “The Artist” because of his ability to create on the ice.
“He never does the same thing twice, whether it’s shooting or passing,” Montgomery said. “He sees open ice and holes where most players don’t.
“With most players, you see diligent work on the ice. With Henrik, he’s creating a painting. You don’t know what it looks like at first, but then it all comes together.”
Given his talent, Panthers fans are surely hoping Borgstrom will soon be creating works of art at the BB&T Center.
And, who knows, if you run into Borgstrom, he might even engage you in small talk.
“Since I’ve been in the U.S.,” he said, “now it feels natural.”
▪ Denied: Panthers second-line center Vincent Trocheck’s six-game point streak was snapped in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Trocheck still has nine points in his past seven games.
▪ Working overtime: Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson beat Detroit 2-1 on Monday with a rebound OT goal. But one night later, the Panthers lost 3-2 to Chicago on a Patrick Kane OT goal.
▪ Something positive: After getting checked in the face by Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba, Panthers star center Aleksander Barkov missed just one game, returning to action on Monday. In three games this week, he had one goal and two assists. His one goal was his 11th of the season and his NHL-leading fourth while shorthanded.
▪ Something positive, part 2: Panthers first-line right winger Evgenii Dadonov (shoulder injury) also returned Monday. It was his first game since November 25.
▪ Something negative: Forward Denis Malgin sustained an upper-body injury against Chicago and did not play on Thursday. However, he did skate in the morning and could return soon.
▪ Something negative, part 2: Florida scored a total of just five goals in three games this week.
▪ Something familiar: Trocheck, who played youth hockey in Detroit, scored a goal against the Red Wings. In 13 career games against the Wings, Trocheck has 12 points.
▪ Look ahead: Sunday, Panthers at Golden Knights; Tuesday, Panthers at Coyotes; Friday, Wild at Panthers; Saturday, Ottawa Senators at Panthers.