The 22-year-old defenseman has been quite possibly the biggest story of the Ottawa Senators’ last four games. After a few seasons of rarely being given opportunities to succeed and not doing much with the few opportunities he was afforded, Brännström finally looks like a top 4 defenseman. Not a guy with top 4 potential. A guy who can play in the top 4 right now.
It’s fantastic, and surprising, and very well-timed, as a lot of us were just beginning to give up on him. But what does it mean for Brännström’s future?
Why weren’t things working out before?
Brännström was a frustrating player to watch in his first few seasons. He clearly had the tools to create offense, but his play in his own zone wasn’t great, and he made a lot of really egregious mistakes with the puck. He was also frequently getting outmuscled and panicking when opposing players tried to hit him. A lot of smaller players are still able to play a physical game, but Brännström just couldn’t pull it off.
Occasional defensive lapses aren’t the end of the world for young, offensively-minded players, but the problem with Brännström was that he wasn’t creating enough offense to make up for those lapses. He has still only scored 2 goals in his NHL career, only 1 of which was at even strength, and his 18 points in 70 games are not exactly what you want from an all-offense type of defenseman.
Compounding that issue was the fact that he had the shortest leash imaginable for a long time. He clearly knew that one mistake would get him benched, and his confidence was suffering for it.
My main concern about Brännström even today is that he strikes me as the type of player who needs to be used in a particular way in order to be effective. He’s a powerplay specialist, and someone who should be spending most of his time in the offensive zone. But the Sens already have a guy who thrives in those types of situations, in Thomas Chabot. If Brännström’s offensive numbers don’t improve, it could be difficult to justify putting him in those situations over Chabot.
First off, all those flaws in his game I just listed? Haven’t seen them in months. Brännström appears to have finally figured out how to play a physical game at his size, as he’s been outmuscling players and throwing big hits every night. He’s had fewer giveaways, and he’s been making good defensive plays.
In the meantime, his best asset, his passing, has been on full display. Just look at some of these plays:
Erik Brännström’s passing >. pic.twitter.com/8B32P1GTWI— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) January 16, 2022
What more can you say about Erik Brännström.— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) January 19, 2022
Puck bounces on Formenton unfortunately. pic.twitter.com/mwONrZe2De
Erik Brännström is on another level right now. pic.twitter.com/q7PZKXpyHN— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) January 21, 2022
Here’s the drawn penalty by Brännström. pic.twitter.com/atGisrn7Fc— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) January 19, 2022
Accordingly, Brännström’s ice time has gone up. He had more than 20 minutes of ice time against Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and has been spending time on the penalty kill. D.J. Smith has also been putting him on his off side next to Chabot when the team is in the offensive zone. That arrangement isn’t great for Chabot’s icetime, but it shows that Brännström finally has the trust of his coach.
Where could he fit in in Ottawa?
It’s great that Brännström is finally figuring things out, because as we all know, Jake Sanderson is set to arrive in Ottawa this spring. Also, Nick Holden is a UFA this summer. There are some questions on left defense right now.
We shouldn’t count on Sanderson having an immediate impact on the Senators. Development takes time, and there’s really no way of knowing for sure how Sanderson’s game will translate to the NHL. Ottawa likes to be careful with prospects, especially defenseman, so Sanderson may still spend some time in Belleville next year.
That’s why it’s really encouraging to see Brännström take such a big step forward. If Brännström can lock down the second pairing, left defense position, then Sanderson could potentially start out on the third pairing, and eventually compete with Brännström for his spot.
I think we might be pretty close to a top 4 that looks something like this:
Chabot - JBD/Thomson
Brännström - Zub
Also, Brännström likes playing on his off side, and D.J. Smith seems more willing to play him there this season. That means that if Sanderson is the real deal, then Brännström could still have a spot in the top 4, just on the other side. That also takes a bit of pressure off JBD and Thomson, who have had promising starts to their career but aren’t sure things yet.
Should he stick around?
A few weeks ago, it really didn’t look like Brännström had a future on this team, and it didn’t look like his trade value was particularly high either. I think that has changed.
The Sens do need help at forward - and it’s possible they’re trying to boost Brännström’s trade value right now - but I still think they’d be better off holding on to him for the time being. They have a lot of good prospects on defense, but none of them are sure things, and there is room for all of them on Ottawa’s blueline. Run with Chabot, Sanderson, Brännström, Zub, JBD and Thomson for a year and see what happens. If the blueline gets too crowded, then we can talk about trading someone.
At the end of the day, “too many good defensemen” is both a) a very good problem to have and b) a problem that Ottawa does not yet have. Ottawa can afford to hold on to Brännström for a little while.
I would probably be willing to trade him for a really good winger. Ironically, I’d trade him for someone like Mark Stone. But at this point, I don’t think Ottawa should trade Brännström just for the sake of trading him.
Let’s hear what you think in the comments. Is there a spot on the blueline for Erik Brännström? Or would the Sens be better off trading him for some help at forward?