Ottawa Senators Report Cards: Erik Brännström

Hail to the Short King!

Ottawa Senators Report Cards: Erik Brännström
Photo by Axel Antas-Bergkvist / Unsplash

Readers' Grade: B-, Staff Grade: B+

There was a point in time when Erik Brännström was the most polarizing player on the Ottawa Senators. I'm not sure that's the case anymore: even his most ardent supporters would likely concede that he'll never be the top pairing play driver that was hoped for when he was first acquired. At the same time, I suspect even his detractors would be forced to admit that, for two consecutive years, Brännström has been an effective player. There has been a rapprochement of sorts between the two factions of the fanbase. That doesn't mean there isn't still a lively discourse about his value to the team.

By any objective measure, Brännström had a good campaign in 2023-24. At 5v5, the Sens managed 50.29% of the shot attempts (CF%), a 51.57 XGF% and a 49.35 GF%. In other words, Ottawa did slightly better than break-even when he was on the ice. Playing on a team that only mustered 45.92% of the goals at 5v5, and was also underwater by xGF%, that's not nothing. Across the board, the Sens were markedly better with Brännström on the ice than they were with him off of it. Here's how Micah McCurdy's model over at Hockeyviz viewed his season:

To be sure, some of his defensive effectiveness highlighted here could in part be explained by relatively sheltered deployment: Brännström spent a lot of this past season on the team's third pair, and both DJ Smith and Jacques Martin mostly kept the third pair away from the opposition's top line. That said, Brännström in turn played less with the Sens' own top forward group – the fact that he achieved a positive offensive impact in spite of his deployment is fairly impressive.

On an individual level, Brännström managed 3 goals and 17 assists for a career-high 20 points in 76 games. While those totals may seem a bit low on their face, it is worth remembering what I said earlier about who his teammates were, as well as his almost non-existent time on the power play. To put Brännström's production in context, he collected points at 5v5 at a higher rate than both Jakob Chychrun and Jake Sanderson – two players who doubled Brännström's raw point total. It would very difficult for Brännström to collect much more than 20-25 points without a major shift in his role on the team.

Speaking of shifts in his role, Brännström held down a spot on the team's second unit Penalty Kill for the second straight season. Ottawa's well-documented struggles down a man somewhat put a damper on this accomplishment, but having the ability to play on the PK while giving your top D a rest is a skill worth having as a third pairing depth guy.

One thing that has historically made Brännström so polarizing is that his areas of weakness are readily apparent: he is small, and can sometimes have trouble moving opposing forwards from the front of the Sens' net. He occasionally gets overwhelmed physically. These challenges were exacerbated this past season by the team's defensive strategy: Ottawa asked their defenseman to "front" shots, i.e get in the lane and try to block them instead of sticking to an opposing player, and then, if the shot did get through, try to scramble to recover to break up a rebound chance. The net result for Brännström was a lot of blocked shots, but plenty of times when a wide open forward buried a loose puck before he could get there. We can quibble about whether this was the right strategy for Ottawa's personnel, but largely Brännström was just doing what he was told in that regard. Still, it's not easy to shake the visual of all those tap-in goals. Brännström has worked hard over the years to improve on these weaknesses, but there's only so much you can do with the physical tools you are given: if you place a lot of emphasis on defensemen clearing the front of the net, Erik Brännström is simply not your guy.

The positives come from what Brännström does once he gets the puck. For two years, he's been a huge positive on the breakout. His ability to elude forecheckers and make incisive passes to spring transition chances is immensely helpful – especially from a guy playing on the third pair. Though he is not physically imposing, he's also a stout defender in open ice where he leverages his superior skating to play a tight gap. You simply don't get the results Brännström has for two seasons running without doing some thing well.

Brännström's future with the franchise is somewhat murky given his status as an RFA, a looming budget squeeze, and the sheer number of potential moving pieces on the team's blue line. Jake Sanderson and Artem Zub will certainly be in Ottawa to start next season, but after that it seems like almost anything is possible. There's also the matter of Travis Green taking over as coach, and whether his preferred playing style will affect Brännström's ice time (or presence on the team). It's unlikely that Brännström would command a large AAV, but it says here that it would be awfully difficult for the Sens to replace what he brings without going above the 2.4M x 2 that Evolving Hockey's Contract Projection tool sees as his most likely outcome.

If the Sens simply want to get bigger and more physical for the sake of it, then this might be the end of his time in Ottawa. But if the Sens are interested in maintaining a strong third pairing, then they'd do well to keep the Short King around.

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