Senators Burning Questions: Where Does Erik Brännström Fit?

Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion has had quite the offseason. He signed an extension that will see him through the 2024-25 season and made significant moves on the blue line. He went out and acquired veterans Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden and because of these moves, the Erik Brännström crowd was up in arms, wondering where will he get his ice-time?

Last season, Artem Zub and Victor Mete became great additions who fell into their lap and will certainly get more minutes this season. With Thomas Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev already cemented in the lineup, where does Brännström fit? He was acquired by the Sens in Feb. 2019 as a part of the Mark Stone deal with the Vegas Golden Knights and has bounced in and out of the lineup since. He’s still young and full of potential, but will Ottawa be the place he can call home for many years to come?

Brännström’s Time in Ottawa So Far

When Brännström came to Ottawa with Oscar Lindberg and a 2020 second-round pick (Egor Sokolov), the Senators knew they were getting a top-quality prospect. He turned heads in his draft year and was selected 15th overall by the Golden Knights at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He found the spotlight playing for Sweden in international competition and with HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). He played 81 games in the American Hockey League (for the Chicago Wolves and Belleville Senators) and showed tons of potential to reach the pro level, regardless of his size.

Erik Brännström Ottawa Senators
Erik Brännström at the Ottawa Senators 2019 development camp (Courtesy Ottawa Senators)

At 5-foot-9 and 181 pounds, he is small for an NHL defender, but he’s an elite puck-moving defenceman with a unique skill set. He’s played 63 games over three seasons with the Senators and recorded 17 points. He’s shown an ability to create time and space offensively; the only other player on the team who can do that is Chabot. Last season, Zub showed his offensive abilities in flashes but lacked some consistency.

Yes, 63 games isn’t a big sample size but, over three seasons, it’s disappointing that Brännström hasn’t managed to stay in the lineup. Last season, he played a small role but was at the forefront of debate and discussion among the fanbase because of his polarizing play and usage. This season will be make-or-break for the young Swede.

Where Does Brännström Fit?

When Dorion acquired Del Zotto and Holden, head coach D.J. Smith indicated that ice time wasn’t a given.

“We’re at the point now where we’ve got to start to win more games and it’s not just purely throwing the kids out there to play. You have to earn everything you get. If you’re in the top six and you’re in the starting lineup, that’s because you’re one of the best top-six defencemen. If you’re not, you’ll watch. Their play will dictate it. We’ll have seven exhibition games, so everybody’s going to play a lot in all situations. You know how the NHL goes: You’re going to go through 10 to 12 defencemen before the year is over, so everybody is going to be important and get their opportunity, so they’ll have to be ready when it comes.”

– D.J. Smith (from ‘GARRIOCH: Coach D.J. Smith says playing time on Senators blueline will be earned’ Ottawa Sun, 26/08/21.)

The additions put the Sens at nine d-men ready for training camp. The top-four is already solidified with Chabot, Zaitsev, Zub and Del Zotto. Brännström, Holden, Mete, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Josh Brown will be clawing for the last two spots. Not to mention, Lassi Thomson, Jonathan Aspirot, Tyler Kleven and Jake Sanderson could all be knocking on the door sooner rather than later.

Whether or not Brännström has a legitimate shot at making the team is still unknown. According to Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, he could be the main trade chip in helping the Senators acquire another top-six forward, which means he could be dealt before camp begins (highly unlikely) or that he’s going to be shopped all season long. If Smith and Dorion felt confident in Brännström, he wouldn’t be on the trade block, and they wouldn’t have signed Del Zotto to a two-year deal. He also should have earned more playing time when Erik Gudbranson and Mike Reilly were shipped out at the trade deadline.

As we continue to analyze the moves and quotes from management this offseason as training camp grows near, it’s clear that Brännström might not be in Ottawa much longer. Smith prefers a more rugged defender, someone who can lay the body and has a defensive mindset before anything else. Brännström is everything but that and was a healthy scratch multiple times last season because of it. Now that Smith received a contract extension this summer, it’s even less likely the Swede will remain a Senator.

It’s a disappointing situation, especially since there was so much hype and rhetoric surrounding Brännström after the Stone trade. The important thing to remember is that not every prospect reaches their potential, and that’s okay. The Sens are in a great spot right now, and that’s because of the great work Dorion, Smith, and the rest of the scouting staff have done in bringing the team back to prominence. Brännström might not fit on the team anymore, but the season hasn’t started, so I’m sure this is a burning question we will come back to soon. 

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