At the end of the 2020-21 season, it looked like Erik Brannstrom had finally secured a spot in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators. The key piece in the Mark Stone trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, he flourished in the Senators’ farm system, recording the highest point-per-game pace of any under-21 defender in 2019-20. Then, while the NHL was in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he scored eight points in 10 games in Switzerland’s National League while also being one of the youngest players on any team. Finally, when then the NHL returned in January, he put up 13 points in 30 games with Ottawa, which ranked fifth among defencemen on the team, and was one of the best all-around presences in puck possession. It was exactly what the Senators needed to transform their defence into an effective unit.
However, once the 2021-22 season began, Brannstrom was nowhere to be seen. After an admittedly OK training camp, the Senators assigned him to the AHL’s Belleville Senators with the belief that he needed more time to develop. While he was never going to be handed the position, especially after the addition of Michael Del Zotto and Josh Holden in the 2021 offseason. But even after not wowing scouts during the preseason, Brannstrom looked to be at least a top-six defender. Instead, the Senators sent him down without a second thought.
While some believe Brannstrom needs more development time in the minors to ensure he becomes a top defender, it’s clear that he deserves a spot in the NHL. The young Swede has the skills to improve the Senators shaky blue line, which is once again costing them wins this season. Yet, Ottawa seems hesitant to scratch any of their current defenders, which benefits nobody. With his entry-level deal expiring at the end of this season, Ottawa needs to either play Brannstrom and give him a role where they can see how he fits into the team, or ship him out to a franchise that will play him and get something back for a player they seemingly don’t want to keep.
Brannstrom Hasn’t Been Given a Fair Shot
On Feb 25, 2019, the Ottawa Senators traded Stone and Tobias Lindberg to the Vegas Golden Knights for Oscar Lindberg, a second-round pick in the 2019 draft, and former first-round pick Erik Brannstrom. It was a major step for the team, as Stone was one of the last stars on the roster after the Senators committed to a full-scale rebuild. Over the past five seasons, he scored at least 20 goals, and before the trade, he led the team with 28 goals and 62 points.
It was disappointing to see the 26-year-old Stone leave Ottawa, as many hoped he would stick around to be a mentor or even become the team’s next captain. But there was a lot of hype for the return, especially surrounding Brannstrom, who was the key piece in the deal. Despite being a smaller defender at 5-foot-10, he was already playing in the top league in Sweden when drafted 15th overall in 2017. When he came over to North America in2018-19, he transitioned quickly to the pace of the AHL and put up 28 points in 41 games as a rookie. Everything pointed to the defender being a big part of the team’s future.
“Erik Brannstrom is the top defence prospect in the game; simply a dynamic talent who will be a major component of our future. He was undoubtedly the best prospect available at the trade deadline and in addition to his talent, he is a natural born leader. We could not be more excited to look at the future of having Erik join the other young prospects in the Senators organization. He’ll be a cornerstone player of our rebuild.”Pierre Dorion after acquiring Brannstrom (from ‘Senators trade Mark Stone to Vegas for package including Erik Brannstrom’, The Globe and Mail – 25/2/17)
Brannstrom made the Senators’ opening night roster for 2019-20 and started on the second pairing alongside veteran Ron Hainsey. However, his first foray into playing top-four minutes didn’t go smoothly, and he often looked like he was just trying to survive. In order to help him work on his defensive presence, the Senators sent him to the AHL after 31 games. The move was no doubt discouraging but necessary in order to give him a boost in confidence and help him round out his game. He was, after all, one of the best defensive prospects in the Senators’ system, and they could wait a little longer.
The 2020-21 season was a big step forward for Brannstrom. His performance in Europe was one of the better showings of any Senators player during the shutdown. He returned to Belleville once the league resumed in January and continued to demonstrate his top-level skills, putting up five assists in four games. With Brayden Coburn and Christian Wolanin not performing well, Brannstrom was called up and remained with the Senators until the end of the season. Not only did he put up solid numbers, but his presence also stabilized the defence and helped the Senators surge to a league-best record to end the season. If he was going to break out, 2021-22 was going to be the year.
However, 10 games into the season and Brannstrom still hasn’t been given a chance to play in the NHL. On top of trying to break into a crowded blue line, the Senators have not been impressed with his early showings in the AHL and likely want to see some more consistency from him. However, in an interview with TSN 1200, Belleville Senators coach Trent Mann said the chaos of the AHL has had a negative effect on his play this season. Teammates aren’t always there when needed, adding to the unpredictability of the league, and thus, top prospects often have to learn how to do everything on their own. But is that really what they want from Brannstrom? The Senators already know he’s a top puck-mover; pairing him with NHL-calibre talent will put him in a place to succeed and develop the best part of his game.
Ottawa’s Defence Needs a Shake-Up
Not only will Brannstrom’s development benefit from a call-up, but his skillset can help stabilize the team’s defence. The Senators’ blue line started the season much stronger than they did in 2020-21, but it still hasn’t been good. After beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in their home opener, they since dropped six of the following eight games, and a lot of that falls on the defence. Beyond Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub, no defender has a positive possession score or a positive plus/minus.
That’s where Brannstrom comes in. As previously mentioned, he’s struggled thus far in the AHL this season, but so has the rest of the team; the Belleville Senators have limped to a 2-6-0 record and sit fourth to last in the league. Injuries have not helped, with veterans Lassi Thomson and Jonathan Aspirot missing significant time already, but the goal of the AHL is to help NHL prospects develop. If Brannstrom is not developing there, the Senators need to recall him as soon as possible.
That may seem like a counter-intuitive statement, especially with Mann stating Brannstrom is lacking some NHL-calibre skills, but compare his potential and current skillset to those currently playing defence for the Senators. Josh Brown has averaged 15 minutes per game, but when he is on the ice, very little happens for the Senators. At even strength, he’s generated 1.2 goals for per 60 minutes and 2.3 goals against. His worst showing was on Oct. 25, where he played less than 10 minutes all game, but during that time, the Senators took zero shots and faced 15. In the below tweet, you can see Brown bump into a teammate and hang out at the top of the right circle, where he is unable to provide any defensive support, which results in a goal as Jonathan Marchessault is left wide open.
Brown seems like an obvious player Brannstrom could replace, and it likely could have beneficial ramifications across the lineup. Back in 2018-19, with the Golden Knights, he was paired alongside Holden during the preseason before Brannstrom was sent to the minors and later traded to the Senators. That pair reunited during the 2021-22 preseason, and it looked solid. The young Swede has great speed and puck-movement skills, while the veteran Holden plays a much more defensive game. Together, they cover both ends of the ice very well and provide a level of comfort for both players, which is essential to succeed.
The Senators’ Size Bias
There’s one glaring issue holding Brannstrom back, however, and that’s the Senators’ size bias. It’s been painfully obvious in recent months that the organization wants big players — look at their recent draft crop, which includes three players over 6-foot-3, one of which is 6-foot-5, and none under 6-foot-0. Free agency also saw the Senators re-sign 6-foot-3 Scott Sabourin and trade for 6-foot-4 Zach Sanford. Granted, all these players play different styles, but when the team’s roster ranks second in the league in terms of height this season after it was 17th in 2019-20, it’s hard not to see them making an effort to avoid smaller players.
If that’s the case, then Brannstrom is likely feeling that the Senators are unfairly treating him. While there are no reports of that, it could be a reason as to why he recently switched agents, signing with Filip Andreason. While players switch representation frequently, this is especially significant when considering Logan Brown switched agents last year around this time. After years of trade rumours, he was finally moved prior to the 2021-22 season, and his new agent was likely a large part of why it happened.
There have been no reports suggesting Brannstrom is looking for a trade, but changing an agent is a signal that the player isn’t currently happy with what’s been happening in regards to the team. Regardless of how he’s performing so far in 2021-22, he has helped the Senators win more consistently when he’s on their roster. Last season, he had the fifth-best impact of anyone on the roster in terms of generating wins. That feels like a player a team can’t afford to play without, and yet he’s been in the minors since the end of 2020-21.
Are the Senators Trying to Change Brannstrom?
Brannstrom’s deployment has raised a lot of questions on where the organization sees him. The Senators are not reportedly shopping him, but the team is taking calls on the talented prospect, which has added fuel to the rumour mill fire. At one point, it looked like a potential Jack Eichel deal could include the young defender, but with that saga finally ending this week, it’s back to guessing where his skills fit best.
The Senators also have a history of misusing some of their prospects. Ottawa terminated Filip Chlapik’s contract this past offseason. Initially, not much thought was given to the move apart from a team moving on from a prospect that didn’t fit their system. However, the young Czech recently spoke to Ian Mendes of The Athletic, saying that it was his decision to leave the organization after growing frustrated with how Ottawa deployed him during his tenure.
“I feel like they tried to change my style into a fourth-line grinder. I think they just had me as a fourth-line guy and never gave me a chance to be anything more. It would be nice to play in the NHL, but to be honest, I wasn’t enjoying playing fourth line, playing six minutes a night.”Filip Chlapik on why he terminated his contract (from ‘‘Screw it, I’m done’: Filip Chlapik explains how and why things ended with the Senators’, The Athletic – 4/11/21)
It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Chlapik and Brannstrom, or between him and Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Christian Wolanin, and Christian Jaros, none of whom are still with the franchise. All have shown immense skill in the minors but have struggled to maintain a consistent spot on the Senators’ roster. It begs the question as to whether coaching staff and management tried to turn these players into something they weren’t, and it just hasn’t worked out.
If that’s the case, then it would be better for the Senators to trade Brannstrom for someone they can actually use and give the young defenceman a fresh start in an organization that will play to his strengths. In exchange, Ottawa is likely looking for a consistent depth defender who can play effectively with limited ice time. They seem to be content with their current setup of Thomas Chabot, Artem Zub, and then several placeholders that are simply there to give Jacob Bernard-Docker, Tyler Kleven, and Jake Sanderson time to develop.
However, it won’t be a trade that looks good in hindsight, because if given the chance, Brannstom will blossom into a top-four puck-moving defender. That’s someone the Senators could really use right now, but it’s clear they don’t want to make space for him at this time. Yet, when looking over Ottawa’s depth chart, few players offer the same set of skills as him. Thomson is likely the most similar in terms of offensive potential, but he also has had a slow road to the NHL. Will he be the next victim of a team trying too hard to fix his weaknesses while ignoring his strengths?
The future is promising for the Senators’ defence. Sanderson is turning into a potential superstar defender at the University of North Dakota, and Bernard-Docker is proving he’s a top defensive defender. But if the Senators can’t figure out their current situation on the blue line, they’ll have a much harder time when those players are ready to take on a roster spot. Brannstrom can provide them with a bit of stability, especially on the offensive side, but he needs the opportunity. And at this point, it just doesn’t seem like he’s going to get it in Ottawa.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.