Lofty Expectations are Skewing Erik Brännström’s Positive Season

The 23-year-old isn’t a star like he was expected to be, but he’s still providing good value for Ottawa

February 25th, 2019: Mark Stone gets traded from the Ottawa Senators to the Vegas Golden Knights for Oscar Lindberg, a 2nd-round pick, and Erik Brännström. During the press conference, Pierre Dorion says this:

“Today is one of the proudest days I’ve had in the NHL...Whatever people want to call this situation, we did well. I as GM of the Ottawa Senators [am] proud of what we’ve done today.”

It was a statement that angered the Senators fanbase so much because they had just lost their potential future captain for cents on the dollar and Dorion was making it seem like a slam dunk. The statement was so bad that he had to apologize for it just a few months later.

Dorion still talked up Brännström lots over the years and the expectation from Dorion, the organization, and thus the fans became that he could essentially become Erik Karlsson-lite: a smooth-skating Swedish defenseman who had put up lots of points in other leagues. The Senators had other defense prospects like Christian Wolanin, Lassi Thomson, and Jacob Bernard-Docker, but Brännström was the jewel who was supposed to be special.

Coming into the 2022-23 season, Brännström had just turned 23 and I don’t think anyone was really holding out hope that he’d be a star first-pairing player anymore. However, there was still hope that he could be at least passable on the second or third pairing. And although you might look at his stat line of just three assists in 21 games and say that’s a disappointment, you need to look under the hood to get the whole story.

Because in reality, Brännström is having a valuable season for the Senators in his current role. Firstly, let’s look at his on-ice impacts in the offensive and defensive zone courtesy of Hockey Viz:

With Brännström on the ice, Ottawa has produced 20% more chances and 11% fewer chances against compared to the average. If you look at the defense graph, there is a complete black hole (the blue areas) in the slot—a sign that there have been hardly any chances from some key areas.

Secondly, he sits 4th on the Senators in Goals Above Replacement (GAR via Evolving Hockey) with 3.0, an all-encompassing stat that takes into account offense, defense, special teams, and penalties. Only Thomas Chabot (3.7), Jake Sanderson (4.6), and Tim Stützle (4.8) have higher GAR, which is quite impressive. In fact, despite his defensive play being much maligned, his defensive component of GAR sits at 1.7, which ranks behind just Stützle on Ottawa.

Lastly, another statistician JFresh shows (via percentile ranks) that Brännström’s value has vastly improved this season:

According to this model, most of Brännström’s increase in value comes from his offensive component, which contradicts what Evolving Hockey has. Either way, that is three stat models showing that Brännström has been very good for the Senators this season. Even if you just look at good ol’ corsi and xGF%, he sits at 55.68% and 58.39%, respectively. It’s pretty hard to argue against the numbers in this case.

Detractors will point to his measly point totals, but points are a terrible way to measure a defenseman’s value. Yes, Brännström should definitely have more than just three points, and I think that will improve. So there’s no denying he needs to bury more of his chances, but assists are very much dependent on your teammates, even more so as a defenseman. The points will come, although considering he’s averaging just 16:38 per game and his most common partner is Nick Holden, it won’t be as easy to get on the scoresheet.

Furthermore, his 3.09 giveaways per 60 are the worst on the team, and that is another area that can be improved upon. At the same time, Sanderson and Stützle are ranked right behind him at second and third and they’re doing just fine overall, so it’s not as if it’s a death sentence. We lived through Karlsson turning the puck over all the time too.

I’ve also seen arguments against him mention his size (5’10, 185 lbs) and that defenseman that small can’t win in the playoffs. Some seem to prefer having a big bruiser-type on the third pairing, and I get the appeal. However, if you have two purely physical players on the third pairing, you’re making it incredibly difficult to break out of your own zone. It’s been an absolute treat having Chabot, Sanderson, and Brännström on different pairings as they can all make excellent stretch passes that defense-first “tough guys” can’t do. The only reason you don’t see a smaller player on the third pairing in the playoffs very much is that every team thinks it can’t be done...without actually trying. Why not just pair him with someone who can handle the physicality then?

Nobody should be saying that Brännström is a star player right now or that he’s flawless. He has his warts, but so does everyone on the Senators defense corps. The reality is that if Brännström was signed for $900k as a 23-year-old free agent in the summer and was putting up these results on the third pairing, fans would be ecstatic. But because he was traded for Mark Stone and given such lofty expectations, it seems like a massive disappointment.

And don’t get me wrong, that Stone trade was bad the day it was made and doesn’t look any better today. But it’s not fair to hold Brännström to that unattainable standard, and we should just be appreciative that he’s excelling in his current role. Is it disappointing that he hasn’t reached his ceiling and probably never will? Yes, of course. But we should still enjoy a good season when we see one, and Brännström can absolutely still be a valuable Ottawa Senator.

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