For those who are looking to monitor the development of Finnish prospects in the AHL, the Springfield Thunderbids are a team to watch this season. The Florida Panthers’ affiliate currently features four Finns: forwards Henrik Borgström, Aleksi Saarela, Sebastian Repo and Aleksi Heponiemi. Repo and Heponiemi started the season with the team, while Saarela was recently acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks. Borgström has played three games with the Thunderbirds after being sent down from the NHL. In this article, I will offer my thoughts on how they have managed thus far on the season.
As mentioned in the first paragraph, Borgström has played three games so far on the AHL season. He has been an integral part of the Thunderbirds’ offense and really stood out against the Rochester Americans last week. He scored the game-winning goal in overtime and assisted the tying 1-1 goal late in the third period. Borgström is undeniably highly skilled and smart, with the ability to control the game when he has the puck on his stick. His stickhandling and playmaking skills are excellent. He’s also a skilled skater, he can make sudden changes of direction and shifty moves in tight spaces. He has a good wrist shot and can get shots off quickly without much set up. Moreover, he has been highly responsible defensively. He backchecks and uses a good, timely stick in all three zones. He has been engaged in the game at both ends of the ice.
In the next clip from the win over Rochester, Aleksi Saarela has entered the zone and makes a pass to Borgström who is in the middle of the ice. Borgström tries to return the puck to Saarela; the pass doesn’t connect but he uses a timely stick to break up the play. Borgström eventually makes a terrific centering pass to Saarela who has moved inside the dots. This pass really shows off Borgström’s vision and ability to execute highly skilled plays.
Here is another impressive sequence, this time from the third period. Borgström wins the battle at the end boards and makes a shifty move to escape from pressure before dropping the puck to the defenseman.
This clip is from the overtime. Borgström is able to get to the puck first in the neutral zone and plays it back to his own end. When he gets the puck back, he shows great stickhandling, acceleration and edge control to maneuver to the net. This play doesn’t result in a goal, but it does draw a penalty and Borgström would score the overtime winner on the following power play.
Saarela has played in only two games with the Thunderbirds after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks. However, I think he has played well alongside Borgström and showed some of his strengths that he’s known for: shot and straight-line speed. He has a powerful wrist shot with a quick, tricky release and he moves into good spots in the offensive zone. He can win foot races to pucks and gets up and down the ice well. Definitely more of a shooter than a playmaker, he hasn’t yet created a ton of offense for others but his offensive skill set is intriguing nevertheless.
Repo is an interesting winger with a solid toolbox. I wouldn’t call him a flashy player, but he does make smart passes and has pretty good hands and a hard shot. He’s effective along the boards and has some snarl. He has shown the willingness to go to the net in an attempt to jam loose pucks in. He plays with good effort and does a good job of getting back and covering his man. The offensive output (1 goal and 3 assists in 8 games) hasn’t been eye-popping so far this season, but his overall play has been quite good in my viewings of this Thunderbirds team.
Heponiemi has had a tough start to the season and has yet to score his first career AHL goal after nine games. However, it must be remembered that he is still adjusting to the North American game and the smaller rink, so I wouldn’t be too concerned about his play yet. Heponiemi will need to continue to gain strength as he loses quite a few battles right now. His skating is pretty good, but additional quickness and agility would only help. I’m looking forward to seeing how he progresses over the course of the season.