It’s been a disappointing start to the season for the Ottawa Senators. While fans generally needed to temper their expectations, the hopes remained exceptionally high going into the start of the regular season. There have been some overall team lows in terms of performance over two games. Some units just haven’t quite gelled like we all hoped. One of the few bright spots, however, was the play of Erik Brännström. After a strong preseason, he’s shown up well in the first two games. With his one-year contract, he’s working to eschew the issues of past seasons. While it’s a small sample size, he looks to be doing well so far. That being said, the clear way forward to get the best out of him is to untether him and mix up the defensive groups.
An Offensive-Minded Defenseman, Stuck in His Own Zone
Beyond his own play, Brännström has often been paired with Nikita Zaitsev. Now, the general sentiment amongst fans is that Zaitsev is not good at hockey. To be frank, I don’t agree. He’s still clearly an NHL-level defenseman, and would be slotting in on third, or even second pair, on almost all teams. There are definitive errors in his game, sure. The biggest issue at hand is that he doesn’t match up well with Brännström. Zaitsev is acceptable at stopping puck carriers, but he’s not good at retrieving the puck and making the first pass. For Brännström to create strong outlet plays, he needs to be getting the puck from his partner.
|Brännström Pairings – First 2 Games||Time on Ice||Corsi For %||xGF%||High Danger Chances Against|
With Zaitsev out for Game 1, Brännström played the majority of his time with Nick Holden. In that first game, the Senators held 54.55 percent of the shot share with them on the ice. They also owned an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 57.38. While this isn’t necessarily a sign of major dominance, it’s a massive step up. Paired with Zaitsev, the team held just a 37.56 xGF%, and that’s a major regression. I understand the reasoning behind the pairing. A bigger, more physical defender to play with a small, mobile one. The idea of them complimenting each other makes sense, but it’s just not working.
Brännström is clearly at his best when he’s able to rely on his partner consistently. His strongest plays came when he could flee the zone and have confidence in his teammate to hold the line. His outlet passes have been strong through preseason and the first two games. He’s been a solid puck mover on the power play, but seems hesitant to pull the trigger with so many great shooters now available. The late-game moments where coach DJ Smith matches him with Thomas Chabot have been nothing short of electric. Not sure I’d want to see the Senators play that kind of hockey all the time, but, man, were they exciting together even if it didn’t produce a goal.
Where Do They Go From Here?
It’s easy for people to say I’m something of a Brännström apologist. It might even be fair. I like the guy and I like the way he plays the game. Perhaps I was a little light on criticism for him last year, but he looks like a different player most of the time so far this season. Admittedly, it’s too early to say it’s a career year or anything of that nature. But whether it was winning a physical battle against the hulking Jurav Slafkovsky, or a nifty dish to set up Brady Tkachuck’s first goal of the season, he’s looking ready to play this year. He stands in stark contrast to the previous campaign.
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The best thing the Senators can do for Brännström is to untether him from Zaitsev. I think there’s still a role for him to play on the team, but I don’t think it makes sense to continue forcing the partnership. Beyond the numbers, you can see it when they play. Brännström will continually push over in the defensive zone to assist Zaitsev. This leads to areas that lack coverage and the Senators forward group, as good as they can be defensively, can’t quite close those gaps. If they can partner him with someone who has stronger defensive instincts, it frees him up to focus on his own coverage and be prepared for the outlet plays.
The Senators have a multitude of options available, but none of them are a sure improvement. If Jacob Bernard-Docker checks into the lineup at some point, he could be a good fit. Lassi Thomson seemed to mesh well with Brännström in the preseason, but he was outclassed by Bernard-Docker and it would be unfair to call him up first. The rookie Jake Sanderson is quickly adjusting to the NHL, but would pairing him with Brännström hinder the improvement of his own offense generation? There are decisions to be made, but DJ Smith needs to start taking a stronger look at whomever he pairs with the young Swede. With two divisional games down already, the slim hope for playoffs has gotten even more slim. Brännström, along with the rest of the roster, will need to find that next gear to compete this season.