3. Erik Brännström (Reader Rank: 4, Last Year: N/A)
Here are all the things Erik Brännström is not. He is not from Gothenburg; he did not play his junior hockey with Frölunda; he does not shoot right; he did not choose to be the primary trade return for a beloved franchise player.
It’s important to try and establish that now, knowing full well that the 20-year-old is going to be compared to Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone — two of the best players in franchise history — for as long as he wears a Sens sweater, even if he does not want to be.
Here are some of the things Erik Brännström is. He is a leader in the intangible sort-of way — having captained Sweden at the U16, U17, and U20 levels, in addition to serving as HV71’s J20 club captain as a 16-year-old. He is also a leader on the ice, too — leading his J20 league in defence scoring at 16 and 17; leading the SHL in scoring among U18 players before finishing fourth in scoring among U19s the next year; and being named to the U20 World Juniors all-star team last season. He is capable of beating you with his hands, his feet, his vision, and his shot. And he isn’t afraid to rough it up every now and then, too.
What I’ve described above is Brännström’s biggest strength: he’s well-rounded. A player who can only beat you with one or two tools may stand out for a bit, but becomes easier to defend unless they start to round out their game. If I had to guess Brännström’s best tool, it would be his hockey sense — a skill that separates him from other young players, especially defencemen, in his age group. After reading some scouting reports, here are some other nuggets about the details of his game.
- He’s a shooter among his peers (below), but it remains to see if he’ll use his shot as frequently at the pro level. He averaged 2.03 shots-per-game this year in the AHL. Some of that could just be the pro transition — he was one of just six rearguards to suit up for more than 10 games at the AHL level this year — but an indicator to follow nonetheless./
- While he’s slight in stature, standing at 5-foot-10, scouts [1, 2, 3] are clear that he plays a “determined and scrappy” kind of game.
- As you see repeatedly in the highlight packs against his peers and in the SHL, he’s been trusted defensively and does a good job of utilizing his tools in his own zone. His skating is used to maintain good gap, his active stick is used steer attackers, and he’s adept at using his body to protect the puck to the best of his ability, both on the rush and in the corners. /
So, is he ready for the NHL? If you’ve been listening to Pierre Dorion and co. recently, all indications are that Brännström will get an extended look at camp to make the team. But if it were up to me, I’d be in no rush. Here’s an NHL.com article on Brännström from the summer he was drafted:
“I like to play, and you play more as a ‘D’ than a forward,” Brannstrom said at Golden Knights development camp last month. “I like to play a lot and have the puck and take responsibility out there, so I think it fits me.”
“I am undersized and I can’t do anything about it,” said Brannstrom, who weighs 173 pounds. “So I just try to play my game and be smart. There are much smaller ‘D’s in the NHL.”
Brannstrom models his game after countryman Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, even though Karlsson is 2 inches taller. However, there are smaller defensemen who have thrived in the NHL, including Ryan Ellis (5-10, 180) of the Nashville Predators.
”I try to work a lot on angles,” said Brannstrom, who added, “maybe in a couple years” he’ll be ready for the NHL.
Those are humble and composed responses for a prospect of his pedigree. While he was chosen in the same draft slot (15th overall) nine years after the player he models his game after, Brännström is set to enter a Senators defence corps that has something Karlsson never had — another star player in Thomas Chabot. There’s room for both players, and to a lesser extent, Christian Wolanin, in today’s game, and sharing minutes at both even-strength and with the player advantage may be good at giving the team a different offensive look depending on who’s directing traffic on the ice. It’s also a far cry from Karlsson having to play 30 minute games and often a full powerplay.
What the Sens have to think about is how many minutes and what role is best for him to play as a 20-year-old pro. He averaged ~18 minutes a night in his two NHL games under Marc Crawford, but there was a strict mandate to play the young Swede and the season had already been long over at that point. That being said, Brännström has played much of the last three seasons against men at the SHL and AHL levels, and the Senators aren’t going to be very good again. If he’s really going to be an elite player, chances are he’ll do well even if he’s thrown into NHL action at such a young age.
On the flip side, when you think of Brännström as he’s described himself above, as an on-ice general — commander of puck possession — more time with the puck on his stick, even if it’s at the AHL level, may not be the worst thing. In terms of AHL point production, Brännström’s company in the post-lockout era (min. 10 GP) reads: Erik Karlsson (0.92 PPG), John Carlson (0.81 PPG), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (0.67 PPG), and then Brännström (0.64 PPG). That’s an elite group, and by that metric alone, one could argue that he has nothing else to prove at any minor league level. However, if you look a little deeper, he was used primarily as a fourth or fifth defenceman with the veteran-heavy (and AHL finalist) Chicago Wolves and still felt like he personally had more to give. Seeing Brännström play all situations as a top defender at 20-years-old is a rare opportunity in the second-best league in the world, and an option the Sens can seriously consider with a revamped and reloaded Belleville squad.
When would I believe he’s ready? Like Karlsson, Brännström seems to be tough on his own game, so asking him when he feels like he’s ready may be one way to assess this. On the ice, though, I’d look for him to be more consistent on a shift-by-shift basis; better able to get his shot through against faster opponents on smaller ice surfaces; and playing with the composure needed to assess when he can join plays as a second or third wave of attack after he starts his team up the ice.
The Senators have an elite prospect in Erik Brännström, the player I’m most excited about following this season. Let’s watch him carve out his own legacy for (hopefully) many years to come.