When the Ottawa Senators re-signed Erik Brannstrom to a one-year, $900,000 contract in early September, the message was clear – this was his last season to prove that he deserved to be in the lineup. Since his arrival in 2019, he’s played just 116 games, continually bouncing between the NHL and American Hockey League (AHL), never playing more than 53 games with the Senators in a single season. For a player expected to be a key part of the team’s defence, the Senators certainly hoped to see more from him by now.
General manager Pierre Dorion echoed those sentiments after making the signing public, saying, “Erik is among our group of young players who we’re looking upon to take another step forward next season. He’s competitive, has an ability to efficiently move the puck and showed well when asked to take on an increased role last season. We’re hopeful that experience pays dividends for him in the year ahead.”
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The Senators are practically finished with their rebuild and are transitioning into finding more immediate success. That means they need to see results from their top prospects, and no one will be under more pressure to reach those expectations than Brannstrom. With his contract up at the end of the season, he’ll need to prove that he deserves to be part of Ottawa’s future or risk being sent somewhere else.
Brannstrom’s Development in 2021-22
Although it’s been a rocky road for one of the Senators’ top prospects, 2021-22 was Brannstrom’s best season to date in almost every category. He dressed for 53 games, an improvement of 23 games over 2020-21 and 22 higher than his career high. His 14 points, all of which were assists, were also a new career best, surpassing the 13 he put up the season before. Despite going goalless, his attempted shots on goal were up from 45% to 51%.
But Brannstrom’s biggest improvements came in the defensive end. His on-ice save percentage, which measures his team’s effectiveness at preventing goals when he’s on the ice, jumped from 89.7% to 91.3%, while his defensive point shares improved from 1.2 to 1.4. His possession metrics also improved; his Corsi for percentage was fifth on the team, while his Fenwick for percentage ranked eighth. Off the puck, he set career highs in blocked shots, hits, and takeaways, and in the preseason, he was one of the most utilized defencemen of any team. He also decreased his giveaway average, going from coughing up the puck over once per game to roughly once every game and a half.
It’s clear that Brannstrom is making positive strides in his development, and at just 23 years old, there’s no reason to suspect that he won’t take another step forward in 2022-23. His game has rounded out over the past three seasons, and the Senators have been as patient as they can be with him. However, patience is running thin, as he was expected to become a top-four puck-moving defenceman who could help out more with the offence. That hasn’t come yet; his offensive point shares decreased from 2020-21 to 2021-22. For him to remain with the Senators, he will need to boost that area of his game this season.
Increased Opportunities Means Increased Pressure
Thankfully, Brannstrom will be given plenty of opportunities to improve this season which was all but confirmed by head coach D.J. Smith as the preseason wrapped up Oct 9. Not only was he not one of the last cuts, but Smith said, “He continues to play well. He was good in his own zone tonight. He’s not a guy who is on the bubble. He’s here.” (from “Senators get set to make tough final roster decisions after ending pre-season on the weekend,” Ottawa Sun – 9/10/22)
Previously, there was speculation that Brannstrom may have been on the bad side of Smith, who often opted to use less skilled veterans or big players, like Michael Del Zotto or Josh Brown, over the undersized defender. But that’s not the case for 2022-23, as Brannstrom has proven himself to be one of the team’s best defenders in the preseason and will start the season on the third pairing alongside Nick Holden. Not only was he successful on the ice, but he had a level of confidence that fans hadn’t seen in the youngster during his time in Ottawa.
Brannstrom’s ascension has left Nikita Zaitsev without a roster spot, which will likely improve the Senators’ defence overall as the big Russian has slowly become a liability on the blue line. But that doesn’t mean he can relax this season. His increased role on the team will also come with increased pressure to keep up his preseason pace. Otherwise, one of the Senators’ top prospects may sneak in and push him out of a job.
Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson, two former first-round selections, have shown that they are nearly ready to play in the NHL full-time after making several appearances over the past two seasons. They also are both right-shot defencemen, which gives them a slight edge over Brannstrom, who will play on the right side left-handed. Jacob Larsson, another former first-round pick and 2022 free agent signing, was one of the last cuts from camp and could be back in the NHL very soon.
Then there’s Maxence Guenette, who demonstrated over training camp and the preseason that he could push for a roster spot sooner rather than later. A seventh-round pick in 2019, he’s quickly become one of the Senators’ more intriguing defensive prospects after putting up 19 points in 48 games as an AHL rookie last season. While he’s a bit further away than Bernard-Docker, Thomson, or Larsson, there’s some sneaky potential to emerge as a capable two-way defender. With Brannstrom likely on the bottom of the pecking order in Ottawa’s top six, all it will take is a disappointing stretch to give one of those promising defencemen a chance to steal it from him, leaving him without any more opportunities.
What Will It Take for Brannstrom to Remain With the Senators?
With the Senators expected to push for the playoffs and competition for roster spots tougher than ever, expectations will be high for Brannstrom this season. With Dorion mentioning that he wants to see him continue to develop his puck-moving skills, the Senators are looking for an increased offensive impact. The bare minimum for him to earn another contract would likely be 20 points, which is one more than the 35-year-old Holden recorded last season. However, 30 points would likely see him earn a multi-year contract rather than another one-year deal.
But offence is not the only thing the Senators will be looking for. The team’s defence was one of the worst in the league in 2021-22, with only six players finishing with a positive plus/minus stat, and only two who played more than 50 games. Although Brannstrom made plenty of defensive improvements, he still had one of the team’s lowest plus/minus ratings at minus-17. Yes, there are issues with that stat as it rarely tells the full story on the ice, but with most of his starts coming in the offensive zone, that number shouldn’t have been as low, and can’t be in 2022-23.
If Brannstrom fails to make meaningful improvements in either of these areas, he may find himself on the trade block in March. His value has tanked since he was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights, but Ottawa would likely try to get something for him, potentially attaching him to a Zaitsev trade. The hope has always been that he would become a meaningful member of the Senators, but this season is likely the last chance he has to prove that he belongs.