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A Case Study on Handling Defence Prospects: Erik Brännström

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The Ottawa Senators have done an exemplary job with handling the promising Swede’s development this year.

NHL: DEC 19 Predators at Senators Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you analyze different areas of the Ottawa Senators’ roster management, you’ll be especially bewildered when looking at their drafting and development of defence prospects. Every team has a mix of successes and busts, but the Senators have taken it to the extreme over the years.

Think about it. How does an organization have the smarts to draft the best defenceman of the 2010s in Erik Karlsson, only to simultaneously be the proud owner of one of the least effective second pairings that professional hockey has ever seen, in Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci?

The Senators have taken a variety of approaches to the development of young defencemen, and today we’ll look at one of the more positive examples in recent history. The best of the league’s defence prospects acquired under the worst of circumstances: Erik Brännström!

After being acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights at the 2019 trade deadline, the 15th overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft made a strong first impression on Senators fans at the start of the 2019-20 season, making the team out of training camp. His primary partner was the experienced Ron Hainsey, and head coach D.J. Smith would tell you that Hainsey’s role as a mentor was key to Brännström’s development this past season. Additionally, the two were similar in the regard that both had experience playing on both sides of the blueline. Notably, according to Smith, the 21-year-old was beyond his years defensively.

“The hardest part is to learn the defensive side of the game and learn to move pucks and stay away from big mistakes.

“For a young guy, especially for a defenceman, that happens a lot, but he’s way ahead of the curve.” — via Bruce Garrioch on Nov. 2, 2019

We can back this up with analytics, specifically a stat called Expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR). This number is derived from a variety of on-ice contributions, including frequency of shots and finishing ability, and estimates how many more goals a player is expected to contribute or prevent, compared to a thirteenth forward or seventh defenceman. Regardless of your role and play style, your play on the ice affects the amount of goals your team is expected to score, or give up.

Specifically, according to Evolving-Hockey’s xGAR model (using per-minute rates to account for varying opportunity), Brännström’s defensive impact ranks in the 56th percentile. This means that his even-strength defensive play was better than around 56 percent of NHL defencemen. It doesn’t seem all that incredible, until you remember that he’s twenty-one years old.

There have been concerns about his size and strength, specifically on how well he can handle physical play in his own end. And while he has been outmuscled occasionally, this only accounts for a fraction of the whole, a young player that we should be really excited about going forward.

In fact, Brännström’s main struggles this year were on the offensive side of things, as his offensive xGAR numbers were only in the 15th percentile. After 31 games he only tallied four assists. It’s clear, however, that this has nothing to do with an inherent lack of offensive ability. He did give us a sample of his puck skills during his stint in Ottawa:

Rather, he struggled to translate the skills we know he has during his time in the NHL. This seemingly wasn’t an issue for the Senators as long as Brännström could maintain his steady play.

In the following chart, you’ll see Brännström’s 5v5 xGF% (Expected Goals For% from NaturalStatTrick.com) each game. Note that the blue line is at 50.00%:

You’ll find that Brännström had a lot of poor performances early on, but he bounced back almost immediately each time. His best stretch of play happened during games 9 through 24, consistently putting up positive results during that time. From the 25-game mark onwards, he had a string of subpar performances. At that time, the hockey ops took notice; he’s not producing, he’s starting to get overwhelmed, so it’s time to send him down. And send him down they did, at the perfect time.

Brännström was a welcome addition to an already-dangerous Belleville Senators squad. In 27 games, he contributed 3 goals and 20 assists, while doing things like this:

You have to think that it’s only a matter of time before he begins thriving offensively in the NHL, and given where his defensive game is right now, he could very well become a star when he reaches his prime. Where I give credit to the Senators here is in their judgement with respect to his growth as a player. They gave him every opportunity to grow in the NHL, and only assigned him to the AHL when they felt it would be a better spot for his development at that point in time.

Furthermore, since there were no viable options to slot into Brännström’s old spot, they went out and acquired Mike Reilly from the Montreal Canadiens. I’m more than fine with giving up a 5th-round pick to ensure prospects aren’t forced to play in over their heads, especially since Reilly has been good enough such that the team can potentially recoup a better pick for him at the next trade deadline.

If you’ve read this wonderful retrospective piece by fellow Silver Seven writer Ary, you’ll know that it’s been a while since the Senators have iced a defence corps worthy of a playoff contender. These next few years, we could see the team buck that trend, and I’m certain that Erik Brännström will be part of that long-term solution we’ve been waiting for.