It’s time for award number five of the seven Colin and I will be giving out this awards season. In this piece, we’ll discuss who we selected as the defence prospect who had the best season and talk about our choice versus some of the strong runner-up candidates. You can find the 2020 awards we’ve already handed out here.
Best Defenceman: Erik Brännström
Reader’s Choice: Erik Brännström (50.3% of votes)
Honourable Mentions: Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, Olle Alsing
After two weeks of disagreeing with the readers, we’re all back on the same page. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how this one would turn out. Colin and I listed Brännström as a biggest disappointment candidate, but he was still a clear choice as both the defender who had the best season — and the team’s best hope for a top-four NHL talent overall. The readers agreed, giving Brännström over 50% of the vote. Only one other defenceman was able to capture >5% of the vote, and that’s our first runner-up, UND’s Jacob Bernard-Docker (38.8%). As you should know from last week, we’re fans of Lassi Thomson, and believe that those three players all have “top-four” potential — even though Thomson is less of a sure thing, overall.
Why Brännström? While we outlined before that he didn’t excel as quickly as many expected him to after a strong first pro season last year, we understand how rare it is for U21 defencemen to play regular minutes at all, let alone well, in today’s National Hockey League. Of the 48 U21 players to play more than one regular season game this year, only 15 were defencemen, with Brännström playing the seventh most games in that stretch. Of those seven “regulars”, all but New York’s Noah Dobson (12th) and Buffalo’s Henri Jokiharju (29th) were top-10 picks. This isn’t bad company for Brännström (15th) to be in. He’s likely the third best defenceman in his draft class after Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar, and is trending to be a great second-pair player. For fans judging his play, it’s important to separate out the part of us that will always hold the “should we have traded Mark Stone for a second-pair defender?” thoughts and feelings, and instead, hold space for the Swede being a fantastic add to a blueline in need of skill behind Thomas Chabot.
Brännström spent most of 2020 in the AHL, where he improved on his point-per-game (0.64 -> 0.85) totals to emerge as the best producing U21 defenceman in the league. In fact, the only defencemen in the last 20 seasons (since 1999-00) to put up a higher points-per-game total (min. 10GP) are Ryan Murphy (1.00) and Erik Karlsson (0.92). Yes, that list is going to miss the elite players (like Heiskanen, Makar, Hughes, Dahlin, etc.) who jump straight to the NHL and are first-pair talents, but take a gander at this list and notice the plethora of top-four talents underneath Brännström anyway. You’ll quickly garner an appreciation for his season.
At the NHL-level, Brännström wasn’t able to lead the puck in transition, put the same volume of pucks towards the net, or move the needle as much in terms of shot metrics as we’d expect him to. He “looked” better during his second call-up, and it’s worth something to me that on a team that gave up a fair amount of shots from the left-side of the ice, that gap was all but gone when Brännström was on the ice.
BSens head coach Troy Mann spoke about this improved defensive prowess in an article with Bruce Garrioch:
“Brannstrom certainly improved his defensive game,” Mann said. “People have to realize Brannstrom isn’t a very big player (5-9), so he’s going to have win his battles through stick positioning and closing and using his feet and his intelligence. At the end of the day, as much as we want to have him box out in front of the net and win those 50/50 battles, he’s not going to win all of those. “What we tried to work on as the season progressed was more stick detail, more positional awareness because we knew he wasn’t going to be able win all those battles. I think he improved in that area, but for two straight years he’s been injured and that hasn’t helped. Both seasons, just when you liked where his game was and where he was at mentally, he got hurt.
While we likely won’t get to see how a healthy Brännström performs in the AHL playoffs, the hope is that this (longer) offseason allows him to work on his strength, mobility, and puck skills so he has the confidence to apply them in the NHL next season.
Drafted in the first-round a year after Brännström, Jacob Bernard-Docker had a stellar sophomore season with the #1 team in the NCAA for much of the season: North Dakota. Playing top minutes in all-situations, Bernard-Docker increased his point-per-game total from 0.47 to 0.78 and played shutdown minutes and top PK duties en route to a Gold medal with Team Canada. With COVID-19 costing UND a chance at the NCAA title, most of the team has decided to return for another season to try again, meaning we won’t be seeing JBD in a Sens jersey until 2021. That being said, comments made from Pierre Dorion and co. hint at the team thinking he could potentially jump straight to Ottawa if he has a strong final season.
We’ve already talked extensively about Lassi Thomson, so I’ll skip to Olle Alsing, who started the season especially strong for Djurgårdens before getting injured early into 2020. Alsing will be coming over to North America for the 20-21 campaign, and we can except to see a pro-ready defender who can transition the puck up the ice quickly. He’s already 23, so his best shot of carving out a role in the system is over the next two seasons if he wants to be a part of the team’s long-term future.
That’s all for this week’s awards piece. Let us know what you think about our decision, rationale, and the runner-ups in the comments section below!