As the regular season comes to a close, the Ottawa Senators have quite a few decisions to make. In this weekly series, we will explore and project what some of those key player decisions will look like. This week’s focus is on pending restricted free agent (RFA) Erik Brännström.
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Who is Brännström?
Drafted by the Las Vegas Golden Knights 15th overall in 2017, Brännström is a smaller, very mobile, puck-moving defenseman. Acquired by the Senators as a part of the Mark Stone trade, he has split his time between the main club and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Belleville Senators. The Swedish defenseman has played an important number of games for a squad that has been depleted by injury this season. However, his role has diminished with the return of Michael Del Zotto from a conditioning stint in the AHL. With the trade deadline move to get Travis Hamonic, Brännström has been shifted down the depth chart.
Brännström is a creative player who can drive plays with smart outlet passes and patrol the blue line in the offensive zone. He’s a very strong skater with an above-average shot but has some defensive deficiencies. His smaller stature, at 5-foot-10, limits his physicality, and this season, he has taken a step back offensively. With 12 points in 47 games, he has not lived up to expectations. However, he did get injured in the first few months of the season, which likely had an impact on his performance. With a leaky defensive game, his point totals need to increase to keep a roster spot.
Where Does Brännström Fit?
The Senators have a relatively solid top-six group of forwards. The team’s issues are mostly on defence and in the net. Thomas Chabot is the clear number one, and prospect Jake Sanderson is poised to run the second pairing. Both players have a projected offensive ceiling similar to Brännström’s but without the same rate of defensive lapses. With players in the system, like Lassi Thomson, a big, defensively skilled player who can make big passes, the window is closing for Brännström’s development.
As a pending RFA, Ottawa will need to extend an offer. It remains to be seen how the front office will handle contracts this offseason amid questions about the future of ownership, but it’s unlikely that he will earn a large amount. It’s a low-risk signing if they can get him locked up on a reasonable contract. A bridge deal in the range of three or four years with a salary cap hit under $3 million annually should be the goal. A deal like this requires Brännström to be realistic about his value, but he may want more as the market price for puck movers has been going up.
Should Brännström Be Signed?
At that price range, the Senators should be satisfied with his current performance and could extend him before Brännström becomes a UFA. If he takes a leap forward in his development, he would immediately become a bargain during the term of this contract. With a smaller value, there’s also the option to move him to a cap-heavy playoff contender in need of a serviceable second-pairing defender.
Ultimately, the Senators have many key decisions to make this offseason that will affect the trajectory of their future. If Brännström continues to develop, Chabot stays healthy, and Sanderson meets expectations, their defensive core will be set. Sanderson is expected to earn a hefty contract once his entry-level is over, and the team will have the same issue with their forward group. Contracts signed this season need to consider two or three years in the future to capitalize on players in their prime for a strong playoff push.