Ottawa Senators Top 25 Under 25, #8: Erik Brännström

Don’t give up on the 23-year-old Swede yet

#8: Erik Brännström (Last Year: 6 // Reader Rank: 9)

I feel for Erik Brännström. His entire career with the Senators organization has been mired in  thoughts about all that he isn’t, following a textbook example of bad PR 101 from his new general manager.

So today, let’s focus on all that he is — our eighth-ranked player in the organization under the age of 25, and the ninth ranked player among readers who voted in our pre-series poll.

What changed... and didn’t change for Brännström this season?

We started the season with high hopes for Brännström. After all, the young defender was coming off of his best stretch of hockey in his 63 game NHL career — shedding Erik Gudbranson’s anemic offensive acumen for a capable puck-mover in Artem Zub while seeing a marked increase in ice-time. Eight of his 13 points came while paired with Zub, as the pair posted positive numbers in the goals and scoring chance department.

All that optimism went out the window at training camp, with Brännström siphoned to the AHL to start the year in Belleville over the now-departed Michael Del Zotto and Victor Mete. In his weekly radio hits with TSN1200, coach Troy Mann noted Brännström’s positive attitude, but his on-ice play suggested disappointment.

After nine games of AHL play, he was called up only to break his hand three games in after blocking a shot late in the game against the Los Angeles Kings, sidelining him until the new year. When he did return, he featured in all but three contests, ending the season with 14 assists and 30 penalty minutes in 53 games.

Paired primarily with Josh Brown for the first-half of the season and Zub for the second-half, the Senators struggled to create offence with Brännström on the ice all season. Worryingly, his on-ice results in terms of shot quantity and quality were similar with both of his regular partners, with the caveat that his time with Zub came at a period where Thomas Chabot was out, so he was also playing against tougher competition. Still: the fact that nine of his 14 assists game in the last 22 games doesn’t bring the same joy as this pattern happening a season prior. The major positive on-ice impact he had was on the powerplay, where the group — with Brännström and a healthy Josh Norris — was on fire to end the season; though it appears unlikely that this quality will lead to an increased role this season with Thomas Chabot and the new forward additions taking priority.

As we dive into Corey Sznajder’s tracked data on Brännström, let’s remember that these stats measure events not ability. They don’t automatically indicate whether a player is “good” or “bad” but help tell a story about what’s happening when a player is on the ice. Context, such as team structure, is important. Hence, I’ll note that the Senators as a team struggled creating off the rush and defending the rush, while also being firmly in the bottom echelon of teams in exiting their zone with possession of the puck.

What stands out to me the most in Sznajder’s 200 tracked minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time in both 2020-21 (left) and 2021-22 (right) is how much worse Brännström fared last season compared to the season prior. In particular, while Brännström was able to help the team as a positive contributor on zone entries relative to other defenders in 2020-21, that was an area of struggle last season. Brännström and his teammates were unable to connect through passes in transition, especially after he retrieved the puck in the defensive zone and was looking to exit the zone with control.

One event that stayed relatively consistent across both seasons of tracking data is the fact that the opposition generally had a hard time entering the offensive zone off the rush against Brännström. He plays a tight gap with an active stick and has consistently showed good detail in angling opposing players to the boards — a strong tool to build off of.

How does he fare compared to his peers?

When Brännström signed a one-year contract extension on Monday, I saw many comments saying that this is his last chance to prove himself with Ottawa. I think we can hold two separate thoughts at once: this is undoubtedly a big year for Brännström, and it doesn’t have to be his last. With all due respect to Jonathan Aspirot, it’s not like the team has another left-shot defender internally ready to take Brännström’s place.

Of the 79 defenders selected in the 2017 NHL Draft, 29 have made their NHL debut and only eight have played above 100 games, six of whom were taken in the first two rounds of the draft like Brännström. Born in September, Brännström is just a year older than Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker, but will grow his 116 games of NHL experience this season while the latter two might still primarily play in the AHL.

“But Ary,” you might say, “Ottawa doesn’t have room for Brännström unless he plays to his potential.”

Let’s take a look at some data from Evolving-Hockey to see how Brännström fared to other defenders under the age of 22 who played at least 250 minutes this season. There are 37 players, an average of just over one per team, and many of them are highly touted prospects like Brännström. You can see how he fared compared to this peer group by looking at his rank indicated by the number within the brackets in the table below.

What can we tell from this? Brännström’s Senators were average or slightly above-average when compared to his peers who are also U22 defenders when it comes to shot attempts for and against, but were below average in terms of expected goals — especially defensively.

To me, this could suggest that it’s okay that Brännström’s offensive game hasn’t just borne fruit yet because many young defencemen struggle in this regard. However, on the flipside, it’s okay to be genuinely worried about his defensive outcomes. We can’t blame all of his warts on playing with a non-NHL calibre defender in Josh Brown, given that he also struggled defensively with a bonafide NHLer in Zub.

What growth are we hoping for?

Troy Mann was on TSN1200 yesterday and was asked by the hosts: “In your opinion, coaching Erik, what does he have to do to have success at the NHL level?” Here’s what he said:

“To me, nothing’s changed since the first day I’ve seen Erik. He’s a small-ish defenceman, you love his compete for how small he is, but he’s got to move the puck […] get up the ice and be that second wave. You hope with confidence and feeling better about his game as he’s earned more NHL time and games that he can help the powerplay as well. If he’s doing those things, he’s going to be an effective defenceman. But if you’re expecting Erik Brännström to start boxing out on a night-to-night basis and winning those battles with all those heavy forwards and traffic in front, it’s probably unrealistic. You have to work with their strengths and do the best to bring those strengths out because at the end of the day, every player has their weaknesses and you have to do their best to minimize them as best as you can.”

I went through past scouting reports [1, 2, 3, 4] of Brännström’s from profiles written before the 2017 NHL Draft. It’s cool to note how many of them also emphasize Brännström’s compete level for a player his size, his ability to read opposing offences to defend against the rush, and his ability to move the puck on the powerplay. Check, check, and check — we’ve observed all of this at the NHL level as well.

There is barely anything in the reports about Brännström’s in-zone defensive ability, partly because when he’s excelling as a player, he’s prevented a controlled zone entry, gone back to retrieve the puck, and moved it before the opposition has had a chance to get set up. It’s that last skill that Troy Mann refers to above, where fans can picture the many times this season where Brännström was slow to react — often having to use his own net as a safety valve while he patiently surveyed his options — only to turn the puck over in the neutral zone against a defensive structure that had time to set up. While Brännström possesses a decent top speed, any advantage he used to have with his acceleration against lower levels of play has been rendered moot at the NHL, taking away one of the ways he’s meant to deceive opponents.

Ultimately, I think Brännström’s future will rest on his ability to exit the zone quickly, with control, and drive transition. In the offensive zone, I’ll be looking for activation and shot volume — given that’s how he generated offence in junior — but I’m not worried about it. His ability to have performed with these skills in the past will always make him a consistent choice for me over his veteran teammates like Hamonic, Zaitsev, and even an aging Nick Holden. Let’s hope he can seize that opportunity this season.

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