The 2021-22 season is right around the corner, and there is much talk surrounding 22-year-old Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Brännström and his future with the rebuilding organization moving forward.
Brännström is a polarising figure within the Senators fanbase, with some fans viewing him as a legitimate future star along the blueline, while others view him as someone that isn’t quite living up to expectations after the team acquired him in a trade back in 2019.
Whether a fan sits on either side of this argument, they do not escape the fact that something doesn’t appear to be right with how Brännström is being utilized by the Senators, especially with his ice time and deployment in recent pre-season games.
Brännström’s Journey So Far
The left-handed defenceman from Eksjö, Sweden has had an interesting development path so far with the Senators and has made 63 regular-season appearances at the NHL level for the team – having also spent a decent amount of time working with the organization’s American Hockey League affiliates down in Belleville.
During his time in the minors, Brännström has demonstrated his ability as a strong offensive-minded blueliner that can move well with the puck at his stick and put up good numbers when given the opportunity – registering 60 total points (10 goals, 50 assists) in 80 regular-season games with both the Belleville Senators and Chicago Wolves.
In his NHL stints, Brännström has shown flashes of his talents and has seen his offensive production numbers increase between 2019 and 2021 – jumping up from just four assists in 31 games during the 2019-20 season to scoring two goals and adding 11 helpers in just 30 games the following year.
This, coupled with increased ice time from 14:51 to 16:21 over the past two seasons (via Hockey Reference), should indicate that Brännström is growing into the NHLer he is expected to become. However, with a number of veteran defencemen added to the roster, including Michael Del Zotto, there are only a few spots available for Brännström to compete for.
What Brännström Can Offer
It takes a variety of player types to make a competitive NHL team and having a puck-moving, offensively talented player along the blue line is one of those components that typically helps teams to compete. This is something Ottawa themselves have experience with. Thanks to the efforts of former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, the team was on the cusp of reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
This is the kind of player that Brännström can become for the Senators, though it is unlikely he will reach the same level as Karlsson, who was one of the greatest in the entire league at his peak. But it’s something the Senators need to be taking advantage of instead of stifling his progress.
While Belleville Senators head coach Troy Mann believes he would be fine with being assigned to the minors, Brännström needs to play a bigger role in the NHL to continue his development (From ‘Senators’ AHL coach Troy Mann on Erik Brannstrom, Egor Sokolov, goaltending situation and more: Q&A’, The Athletic, 16/9/21). In his most recent appearance for the Senators in pre-season, however, he was placed on the bottom pairing alongside Finnish prospect Lassi Thomson, while a range of veteran players were given more ice time.
For Brännström to succeed, he needs to be given plenty of opportunities in offensive situations, including a larger role on the power play, where he can be a strong facilitator. He is a pass-first type of player in the offensive zone and would fit comfortably on the second power-play unit, sending the puck across the zone to help the team’s forwards find the net.
He is not a strong defensive player and isn’t going to win many physical encounters, but he can offer the team a lot if he is utilized in the right way. As long as expectations of what he is are kept in check.
Overly High Expectations
Brännström arrived in Ottawa with huge expectations placed on his shoulders. He was considered the key piece in the return for Mark Stone‘s trade to the Vegas Golden Knights, having been selected 15th overall in the 2017 Draft, and the hope would be that he could become the next Karlsson.
The 22-year-old Swede has a similar skillset to the former Sens captain, being a puck mover and having skill in the offensive end, but the expectation that he could become a future Norris winner is always going to lead to disappointment if that expectation isn’t met quickly.
Defencemen typically take longer to develop than forwards at the NHL level, so expecting Brännström to be that kind of player this early on does little to help his progress. Also, having expectations of what type of player he should be, even if it goes against what can be seen on the ice already, can lead to disappointment.
He is entering the final year of his Entry-Level Contract, with the Senators holding RFA rights once the season’s over, so this year will be particularly important for him as he looks to earn a new deal – one that will most likely be a bridge deal so the organization can make a long-term decision on him further down the line.
But as things stand, Brännström is an NHL defenceman and deserves to be given the chance to grow at this level in the right way. He should be given plenty of power-play minutes and his ice time should see him continue to be deployed in the offensive zone the majority of times, as this is where he can excel.
If the Ottawa Senators can give that to him, and not send him back down to the AHL for further development, then this season should see Brännström take the next steps and truly begin to show everyone in the Canadian capital what he is capable of being.
James is a British sports writer covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers.