5. Erik Brannstrom (Reader Rank: 6, Last Year: 3)
This past season, Erik Brannstrom split his time relatively evenly between Ottawa and Belleville, suiting up in 31 and 27 games for each club. In that time, Brannstrom made great strides and improved in areas of his game which require amelioration for him to make the leap to a full-time, impact NHLer. The unfortunate part for Brannstrom is that his label of top prospect comes with added pressure and there are some who are growing impatient with the fact he isn’t a top 4, bonafide NHL defender yet. After all, his acquisition was the proudest day in Pierre Dorion’s career as a General Manager.
Before we jump in, we have to remember that Brannstrom is just 21-years-old. While we (im)patiently await his arrival in the NHL, this player whom some are getting worried about is the same age as players who are knocking on the door and whom people are excited about. Brannstrom was drafted 15th overall in the same draft where Josh Norris went 19th and Alex Formenton was selected 47th. While it would be awesome to see Brannstrom rip apart the NHL at the tender age of 21, it’s also important to note that not many defenders do. The NHL is notoriously patient with the people who play on the back end. Even Thomas Chabot’s rookie season only occurred a year ahead of where Brannstrom is today. Because we’ve had the opportunity to see Brannstrom play at the professional level earlier, due to being a European player with eligibility to play in the AHL the moment he was drafted, we may be rushing to a conclusion that is so far in the distance, we can’t really make a statement about it with much confidence.
So, let’s look at the areas of strength and improvement when it comes to Erik Brannstrom.
Carrying the Offense
Like a certain Swedish blueliner before him, Brannstrom’s greatest strength is carrying the offense for his team. Regularly, he’s driving play and using his vision and speed to transition the puck from his zone into dangerous areas. You don’t need to look far to find evidence of Brannstrom’s prowess in this area.
Here’s a tape-to-tape breakout pass that leads to a big goal for Belleville midway through the third period while down by two.
Then, of course, we have a play where Brannstrom picks the puck up from behind the net, exits his zone and enters the offensive zone by dishing it to Balcers, eventually resulting in a goal.
Szwarz— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) December 14, 2019
Took Brannstrom just 8 AHL periods to pick up 2 assists – his total in 23 NHL games this season.
For Balcers, that's points in 11 straight – at least 1 in every game he's played in. #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/flQOvbOILH
Finally, something a little more recent from his time with the SCL Tigers in Switzerland: a brilliant zone exit to set up a goal followed by an important stop and impressive zone entry to set up another.
Erik Brannstrom had 2 assists, one on a nice rush to set up the GWG, in a 2-1 win on Saturday— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) November 14, 2020
Brannstrom is now tied for the team lead with 7 points (2G, 5A) in 7GP with the SCL Tigers (plus a goal in Swiss Cup action). Great production on a low-scoring team #SensInEurope pic.twitter.com/V5G0O7nUCa
Needless to say, Brannstrom has an impressive skillset when the puck is on his stick. He has the speed, hands and vision to make an impact in this area. The question, for me, became how he compares to his peers in his development year.
Going back to 2013, I’ve isolated the top defenders at the same point of development as Brannstrom this past year (DY+3). Below you’ll see the top defenders in their even strength primary production, with a minimum of 15 games played.
Like me, your eyes immediately ran along the X axis to see where Brannstrom’s 2020 season lands him. His 0.296 even strength primary points per game ranks him fourth on this list, surrounded by either bonafide NHLers like Matt Dumba or other top young defenders like Jake Bean, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Andersson. Across the entire AHL this past year, regardless of development curve, Brannstrom still ranks seventh in this category.
Similarly, when you sort by total primary points - powerplay production included - Brannstrom’s 0.444 primary points per game slots him in at ninth in this class. While you may be wondering to yourself, well that’s far less impressive, it’s important to note that the difference between ninth and second is only 0.06 primary points per game.
All-in-all, the stats back up what we already know about the high flying Swede. He’s fantastic offensively and when the puck is on his stick, fun ensues.
Lacking on Defense
I know what you’re thinking. It’s probably not a good sign that a defender’s area of weakness is... his defending. And you’d be right! From what I can tell, this is what has held him back from being an impact player with Ottawa to date. The good news is, however, improvements have already been made!
From watching Brannstrom in Belleville over the past two years, the big difference I’ve noticed is Brannstrom’s patience with and without the puck. When he has the puck, he used to try to go for the immediate big play. Now, if it’s not there, he won’t force it. When he’s without the puck, he would try to retrieve the puck as quickly as possible. Once again, now, if it’s not there, he won’t force it. As he continues to work on these traits, he’ll be right there with the best of the smaller defenders in the NHL.
Statistically, you notice Brannstrom’s lack of defensive prowess when you analyze his even strength goals allowed per game. Unfortunately, this metric isn’t easily tracked as the data wasn’t publicly available before this season. But when you look at DY+3 defenders in the AHL this past season, Brannstrom ranks 11th out of 20 in this metric. While his even strength goals for per game rank him second, it’s clear that Brannstrom’s offensive minded game has its setbacks.
At the NHL level last season, an area where Brannstrom really struggled was giveaways. Looking at his ice time relative to his giveaways, Brannstrom ranked fifth on the Senators for highest giveaways per 60 with just under three. The players ahead of him were Vitaly Abramov, Logan Brown, Cody Goloubef and Jayce Hawryluk. Players like Mike Reilly and Thomas Chabot were right behind him. You’ll see the trend here. Of the top 10 worst in this stat for the Senators last year, Bobby Ryan (9th) was the only player who was not either a defender or a prospect. Even Chabot struggled with giveaways. It happens when you play for a roster like the one Ottawa put out there last season.
So, why 5?
It’s simple, the good far outweighs the bad.
So far, what we’ve seen from Brannstrom is an excellent playmaking ability with speed and vision to complement it. Yes, there are defensive deficiencies but none that most would deem to be unsolvable. The 21-year-old feels like he’s been around forever and his time feels like it should be right now. But the good news is, it only feels that way because he has three years of professional hockey in North America already under his belt. This should be seen as an exciting curve for him, not something to be worried about.
Have a look at his dynamic highlight reel if you’re finding yourself questioning the skill in #26. I think you’ll start to feel better.