No Shorties Allowed: Sens Part Ways With Erik Brännström

Farewell, Short King

No Shorties Allowed: Sens Part Ways With Erik Brännström
Photo by Alp Duran / Unsplash

The relationship between Erik Brännström and the Ottawa Senators was fraught almost from the start. Positioned by former General Manager Pierre Dorion as the centerpiece of the return for trading away Mark Stone, the defenseman was never going to live up to the expectations of that particular transaction. How could he? Stone was one of the best players in franchise history, and a top 10 forward in the league at the time. Hopes for Brännström were sky-high when he first came to Ottawa. Ultimately, he never lived up to them and instead became one of the most polarizing players to don the Senturion.

Nonetheless, today's decision by the team to not even offer Brännström a qualifying offer at $2M is a bit of a head-scratcher. All of the reporting indicates they won't even offer him a contract at a lower AAV; the two sides are parting ways. There are mitigating factors of course: Ottawa is in a bit of a pinch cap-wise, and they, currently anyways, have three left-handed shot defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart in Jake Sanderson, Thomas Chabot, and Jakob Chychrun. Barring a near total-remaking of the team's blueline, Brännström was never going to make it off the team's bottom pair or onto either of the power play units. Whether he returns will not make or break this team – no third pairing defenseman makes that much of a difference in the NHL.

Still, the choice to let a good NHL defender go for free is tough to square. Over the last two seasons, when Brännström has really blossomed, he is second on the team for 5v5 GF% among defenders; only Artem Zub is better. He is first by xGF%, only Brady Tkachuk and Claude Giroux are ahead of him – two players he notably played with very little. Brännström has played 150 of 164 possible games over those two seasons, on the penalty kill, and capably stepped into the top four on any of the numerous occasions that there have been injuries. I should be clear that I do not think that he is the first- or second-best defenseman on the team, but if you are looking at what happened by chances, or goals, you know, the whole point of the game, then he has been getting results.

The obvious statistical critique of Brännström is that he didn't produce enough counting stats, but anyone hoping that he was going to start churning out 40 points a season in his role was dreaming in Technicolor. Simply put, defensemen in today's NHL accumulate points by playing on the power play and Brännström never did that. Over the last two seasons, Brännström has been collecting points at a higher rate than both Sanderson and Chabot at 5v5 – despite playing far less with the team's top players. To be clear, I think this is the correct arrangement because Sanderson and Chabot are the superior players. Brännström should be slotted behind them on the depth chart. But if you think those two are scoring enough, and I do, then I'm not sure there's much to be said about Brännström's relative production.

I joked yesterday in our Draft Open Thread that the Sens going all-in on size was probably a bad omen for Brännström. It wasn't long after that Dave Poulin seemed to confirm my suspicions:

This is the issue with Brännström in a nutshell, and it always has been: he's listed at 5'10, but even that seems generous. If he's more than 5'8 I'd be surprised. By NHL standards he's small. The Senators under Steve Staios and Dave Poulin seem to be very much committed to building a bigger team. If the mandate is big at all costs, well, there won't be much place for Brännström.

In his article announcing the parting of ways between Brännström and the Sens, Bruce Garrioch suggested that:

The Senators feel defenceman Tyler Kleven is ready to make the next step from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Belleville. The club also opted not to buyout veteran defenceman Travis Hamonic, who has one year left at $1 million, which means the club has a seventh.

Tyler Kleven might get better results than Brännström next season, and as a Sens fan I certainly hope he does, but it's certainly no sure thing. What he will do, certainly, is fit the archetype of the type of defenseman that Staios and co. seem to be after.

Over the years I've spilled a lot of digital ink on the topic of Brännström, mostly because I view him as something of a Rorschach blot for how we think about hockey. The sport is very old fashioned in many ways, and one of the enduring pieces of conventional wisdom is that defensemen should play defense first, hit a lot, and, typically, be big. Brännstrom checks none of those boxes, yet, for two years now, he's been good by all of the statistical measures that matter to winning games. How do we square that circle?

The answer, to me anyways, is that aesthetic preferences are inputs that help determine results, they are not desirable in and of themselves. That is to say: if you think a player being big confers upon them a great advantage, then the benefits of their size should show up in their results. The same applies to every characteristic, if you think being fast is crucial, or being physical, or having a great shot, or whatever, then that attribute should show up in the goals and the chances over a long stretch of time. And if a player who doesn't have the attributes that you most covet is still getting good results in spite of it, then perhaps there are other things they are doing that are equally, if not more, important.

We haven't fully seen how the Staios administration builds out this team, so I'm not going to rush to conclusions here. The trade for Linus Ullmark was an absolute home run, and I wrote as much just two days ago. As I wrote at the top, this team's fate next season is hardly tied to Brännstrom alone. That said, the process that leads Ottawa to not even qualify a good NHL defenseman at $2M for what appears to be stylistic preferences does not fill me with confidence. I hope I'm wrong about what this augurs for future player evaluation. Prove me wrong, Steve! I love to eat shit about the Sens if it means the team is good.

As for Brännstrom, I will miss watching him play hockey. Beyond the facts of his on-ice contribution, I enjoyed his style of play; he is a very skilled player who is absolutely fearless. Watching him simply skate away from leadfooted defenders brought me endless joy. I will not miss the truly deranged discourse about him in many corners of Sens fandom. There is a small silver lining there.

Good-bye Short King, long may you reign.

Not everyone can afford to pay for sports coverage right now, and that is why we will keep as much of the site's content free for as long as we can.

But if you are able to, please consider subscribing to help keep our articles free (and get a few extra perks).

Erik Condra
  • Ability to comment and participate in our community
  • Twice monthly newsletter available only to subscribers
  • Ad-free reading
  • Our undying love and appreciation
Brady Tkachuk
  • Everything from the Erik Condra tier
  • 10% discount on all merch
  • Access to any future paywalled content
  • A personal thank-you from the Silver Seven staff
Daniel Alfredsson
  • Everything from the Brady Tkachuk tier
  • Inner peace knowing you are supporting quality, independent coverage of your favourite sports team