Will Borgen and Jamie Oleksiak are seated next to one another towards the back of the locker room at the Kraken Community Iceplex. Not much is said as the two burly Seattle defensemen take a moment to catch their breath after morning skate.
Not much needs to be said, there’s a silent understanding between them.
Seeing them interact on and off the ice one might think they’ve spent their entire careers playing together, but this is the first time they’ve started a season as defensive partners.
After spending the inaugural season as a depth piece supporting a log jammed defensive corps, Borgen was able to secure a full-time, third pair role slotted alongside Carson Soucy last season, subsequently playing all 82 games for the first time in his career. In mid-January when injury struck Justin Schultz, a veteran and two-time Stanley Cup champion ranking higher in the defensive chain of command, it was Borgen who replaced him on the Kraken’s second pair with none other than Oleksiak.
Borgen rose to the circumstances, handling the sudden change and increased defensive responsibility with ease. When Schultz returned to the lineup after the All-Star break, he conceded his position and joined Soucy on the third pair. Valuable chemistry between Borgen and Oleksiak was apparent from the jump, something the Kraken coaching staff wanted to cultivate. They’ve been paired ever since.
“I think right away we played well, but I think now we know each other’s tendencies,” Oleksiak reflects. “At this level you have to be able to adapt quickly, and I think that’s a characteristic a lot of guys (on the team) share, being able to mesh with different pairings.”
With Borgen and Oleksiak on the ice, the Kraken had the upper hand in shot attempts and kept about even with opponents in scoring. Not only could they be trusted to hold leads, they could be counted on to stop the bleeding in deficit situations.
Veteran’s Experience The Backbone Of Pairing
With his tenure in the league nearing 600 games played, it’s not surprising Oleksiak has fostered a consistent, high-quality defensive presence night after night. At the root of this maturity is stoicism, a quiet confidence which keeps him focused in the face of whatever the game throws his way. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty mobile for 6-foot-7, 255-pounds. Teammates refer to Oleksiak as “Rig”, short for “Big Rig”.
“I’ve seen a lot around the league. I’ve been through ups and downs, and you have to keep [an] even keel, you can’t be too high, can’t be too low,” he explains.
In contrast, Oleksiak sees the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Borgen as bringing a little more of an active enthusiasm to the pairing.
“Will’s a pretty positive guy, a pretty fun guy to be around in the room,” Oleksiak points out.
To him, the yin-yang of their personalities and plenty of communication have been the keys to their on-ice performance.
“It’s always obviously easier to build chemistry with guys like that,” Oleskiak continues. “I think being a predictable, reliable pair is kind of the key between us two and I think we’ve been doing a good job [of that] this year.”
Young Kraken D-man Finds Growth
Borgen’s maturation and the pair’s chemistry have only added to the younger D-man’s confidence.
“You know each other better, know how each other plays,” he said.
As Borgen answers the question, Oleksiak gets to his feet, coolly sticking out his hand for a fist bump.
“Really good player right here,” Borgen adds as he returns the bump, “makes it easy for me.”
Humility aside, Borgen deserves credit.
While visiting the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Kraken’s last stop on their recent road trip, Borgen demonstrated that maturity with a cleanly executed backcheck one-on-one against the always dangerous Nikita Kucherov. Borgen stifled what could’ve been a Grade-A scoring chance, and he did it without taking a penalty.
With the benefit of a front row seat to witness the improvement, Oleksiak sees Borgen having “a lot of potential.”
“I’ve really enjoyed seeing Will grow as a player and I think he’s improved so much from last year,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun watching.”
The 30-year-old Rig and 26-year-old Borgen share similar approaches to on-ice responsibilities.
“We’re both a little bit more defensive-minded first, before we join [the] offense. We like to play similar ways,” Borgen said.
Balanced scoring for the Kraken last season meant help from the blueline. Oleksiak put together a nine-goal, 25-point season. Borgen chipped in three goals and 11 assists.
They’ve been known to swoop down low for net-front pressure on occasion, showing some decent hands, and keeping the surprised opposition on their heels.
A lot of scouting goes into determining exactly when it’s advantageous to jump into the attack.
“There’s a million indicators,” Oleksiak explains. “You read the momentum of the play, if [the opponent’s] guys have been on for awhile, if we’ve got some good push, systematically what they do.”
Understanding and anticipating each other’s tendencies is what allows them to attack without becoming a defensive liability.
“We both cover for each other if one of us decides to step up,” Borgen elaborates.
Does this mean they’re looking to specifically improve the offensive side of their game?
“Not necessarily,” Borgen admits. “I just kind of find opportunities to join the rush, to be that second wave. I do it when I can. Otherwise, try to keep most of the play in front of us.”
Regardless of whether Borgen repeats a 20-point season or not, the chemistry he’s built with Oleksiak, and the strong defensive foundation they provide, is priceless.
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