#6: Erik Brännström (Reader Rank: #8, Last Year: #5)
Considering his relatively small role on last year’s edition of the Ottawa Senators, Erik Brännström generated an awful lot of debate among analysts and Sens fans. If you’re a regular reader of this site, chances are that you too have a strong opinion of him one way or another. The pros and cons of his game are immediately apparent upon just a couple of viewings: Brännström struggles while defending against the cycle, particularly versus some of the league’s larger forwards, but he’s also an elite puck mover who can kickstart your offense in a split second. Part of how you feel about the young Swedish defender is also likely related to your own aesthetic preferences for hockey: if it’s necessary that your defensemen throw bone crunching hits and be defensively-minded above all else, Brännström is not going to do it for you. If, on the other hand, you prize a defenseman’s ability to help your team score goals then there’s a lot to like.
After all, there’s no other defenseman on the Sens, or in their pipeline, besides Thomas Chabot who can do this at an NHL-level:
Erik Brannstrom is still a very fun hockey player. pic.twitter.com/EkmpPn9S5m— Joel Henderson (@dathockeydoe) September 2, 2021
When you see Brännström do stuff like that, you can understand why Pierre Dorion targeted him as the key part of the Mark Stone trade. Three seasons into his tenure in the organization, however, Brännström has not been able to fully establish himself in the NHL. Up until the Sens jettisoned Erik Gudbranson and Mike Reilly at the trade deadline, it wasn’t even clear that Brännström was ever going to get an extended stretch of games despite the team languishing at the bottom of the league.
The primary reason that Brännström found himself as a healthy scratch for a fair number of games in 2021 is that coach DJ Smith simply didn’t trust him defensively. With Smith newly extended, unless there is a dramatic change this off-season, I wouldn’t expect the young Swede to play a prominent role this coming season, either. Indeed, when Smith recently spoke with Bruce Garrioch, he made it clear that he has the recently signed Michael Del Zotto penciled in to play meaningful minutes behind Thomas Chabot. If the Sens felt that Brännström was ready to slide into the second pairing, they would not have brought in Del Zotto in the first place. All of this is also before we get to Jake Sanderson, who Ottawa would very much like to make the leap to pro hockey at the end of next season. Where does the once highly-prized Brännström fit into all this?
If I had to guess, I would go with Brännström starting the season in the AHL given all the bodies (and one-way contracts in front of him). From a development perspective though, anyone who watched the five games he played last season, or the 27 he played the year before that, will tell you that he’s clearly a cut above that level of competition. Brännström has a very specific weakness, defending the cycle against NHLers, that just wasn’t as big of an issue against AHLers. It’s hard to practice getting better at defending NHLers when you are defending AHLers. This leaves the Sens in a bit of a tricky spot in terms of developing Brännström. He recently turned 22, which means that his prime years are very much still ahead of him but he’s also not 18 anymore. At some point, Ottawa will need to decide what to do with Brännström.
Why then does Brännström still rank as high as #6 on our list? Well, simply because he’s had some modest NHL success and, despite the obvious flaws, he’s still got a tonne of potential. Corey Pronman has him in the top 100 players under 23 and projects Brännström as a second pairing defender. Most prospect projection models still love him. He has elite skills that very few defensemen possess — he’s tantalizing.
Earlier I wrote that I think Brännström is likely to start in the AHL, and I think that’s true, but there also remains a wide range of possible outcomes for his career. There can be no doubt that this year season is a big one for him. If he’s able to impress in camp, maybe he starts the year with the team and he forces his way into the team’s long-term plans on the left side. As we’ve already discussed in this series, though, some prospects just don’t quite work out the way we’d hope. We’re going to learn a lot more about which one Brännström is this year.