Hockey news has, rightfully, been hard to come by during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean a few stories won’t manage to break through the haze.
Henrik Borgstrom’s development, or lack thereof, has been a thorn in the side of the Florida Panthers ever since he made his NHL debut in March of 2018. He’s only played 58 NHL games with 19 points and has only notched 45 points in 73 AHL games. In many ways, he’s been lapped by prospects old and new in the system, which made the rumor surprising yet altogether not surprising at the same time.
“We talked to his agent, and that is not true. Maybe it is a bargaining tool. But according to his agent, his preference is to sign with us.”
What’s concerning is not whether the rumors are true, it’s that they’re happening at all. Borgstrom should be a focal point for the Panthers by now, and thanks to development mismanagement ever since Borgstrom left Denver, he’s not anywhere close. This story heightens something urgent about the Panthers’ future: their development model is entirely broken and needs a ground-up overhaul.
Who is the last Panthers prospect that truly flourished in the Panthers minor league system? Riley Stillman might be the best answer to this question, but he’s still played far too few pro games in both the AHL and NHL to produce a definitive answer. Perhaps then it’s MacKenzie Weegar, who after three AHL seasons in three different cities, finally broke through by 2017. If those are two success stories, then they are dwarfed by the number of players who never had the chance they truly deserved because of the development model.
Think of Henrik Haapala, who signed with great fanfare after the 2017 season, but played only five NHL games and 20 AHL games before heading back to Europe. He never had a chance to succeed as he probably should have, not just in Sunrise but especially Springfield. Maxim Mamin went through largely the same ringer: brief moments of promise, yet yo-yo’ed between Sunrise and Springfield, and by the middle of last season, he was back in Russia.
Think of Aleksi Heponiemi, an immensely talented prospect who only had 14 points this season with the T-Birds playing third and fourth-line wing. That’s no way to give players with promise but lack polish a chance to get it. Think too of players like Sebastian Repo and Bogdan Kiselevich, players who weren’t true prospects but could have been solid members of the system that never got the chance to become something meaningful. Even Owen Tippett needed a third development year before he finally took off when some of his fellow 2017 draftees are already impact players.
Given the far-reaching and still evolving effects of the pandemic, young players on entry-level deals are going to be more important than ever. At best, next season’s salary cap will be flat with this year’s number. Multiple key players will be free agents, and the Panthers won’t be able to keep all of them. Ideally, they’ll be replaced by Borgstrom, Grigori Denisenko, and players of that ilk. If the Panthers want to be a consistent playoff team during these years of cap turmoil, these players will need to succeed right away by being put in positions to succeed. What evidence in the last few years is available to suggest that any of the Panthers prospect cornerstones have been given a chance to do that?
Competing in the Atlantic Division means competing with Toronto and Tampa, two teams who draft, develop and cycle in key pieces around their cores constantly because the development model is finely tuned and executed properly. This means the Lightning are able to replace players who have to leave because of a cap crunch, and the Leafs can take fliers on players like Mikko Lehtonen who want to come because they know they’ll be given a real chance to succeed, not just empty promises.
Since the Panthers haven’t done that, they’ve needed to give out big contracts to free agents that are even more of an impediment now than they were when they were signed. That could cost them the best years of the franchise’s biggest stars right before their biggest payday.
Perhaps these Borgstrom rumors came about because of the immense uncertainty surrounding a 2020-21 AHL season and whether it will even happen. Perhaps it has to do with the Panthers not having an affiliate set up for next season either, though all indications are it will be in Charlotte. Perhaps it’s because Borgstrom is truly frustrated with his development and lack of chances as a first-round pick five years after he was drafted. Whatever the reason for the rumors, the fact that they got out, especially during these times is not a good look for a Panthers team caught distinctly in limbo, and needing more than ever a nimble plan for the future.
It’s time for Dale Tallon to radically re-think how his team’s development model works, whether that be with coaching, front office personnel, or planning for the future. A good model will be massively important in the years ahead because of the salary cap, and winning could easily be determined by whether a team has a good one or not. There’s too much at stake for this franchise, whenever hockey returns, to continue with the status quo that clearly hasn’t worked. Player development isn’t linear, but why are Panthers prospects failing to flourish when that isn’t happening elsewhere?
Henrik Borgstrom’s story could be the next in a long line of development mishaps that set the Panthers even further back than they already were, but this could be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back.