Year in Review: Erik Brännström

This won’t be even remotely controversial!

Welcome back for the second installation of our new Year in Review feature where we re-visit the year that was for each member of the Ottawa Senators. Last week’s edition reviewed Drake Batherson’s season. As a reminder, we’ll be going through the players alphabetically, and we’re limiting ourselves to players who suited up for at least ten games in 2021 and seem likely to return next season. And since this is a new feature, a reminder that we welcome your feedback; let us know what you like and what you don’t like about it in the comments below.

This week we turn our attention to Erik Brännström, who I’m sure will be totally uncontroversial!

By the Numbers:

Similarly to Batherson, Brännström had had a taste of NHL action before this year with 33 games played across two prior seasons. There was an expectation that this would be the year he assumed a regular role on the Ottawa blueline but for a variety of reasons, that we will get to later, the Swedish defender only ended up playing 30 of the team’s 56 games. During this time, he collected two goals and eleven assists for thirteen points — good for a 35 point pace across a full 82 game schedule. His playing time increased as the year went on, but for the season he averaged a meagre 16:21 a game in all situations and 13:27 at 5v5. Of the defensemen who remain on the roster, only Jacob Bernard-Docker and Josh Brown averaged fewer total minutes and only Bernard-Docker averaged less at 5v5.

When he was on the ice, the Sens had a 50.41 CF% and a 45.20 xGF% at 5v5. By CF%, Brännström posted the best results of the defenders that project to be on the team next year, and by xGF% he was the second-worst (only Bernard-Docker was behind Brännström and there’s no guarantee Bernard-Docker is even with Ottawa next season). A 30 game sample isn’t nothing, but it’s also not very big so I’d caution strongly against drawing any definitive conclusions about the large gap between Brännström’s CF% and xGF% numbers. For now, it’s safe to say that in 2021 the Sens got mixed results when he was on the ice.

Here’s now Micah McCurdy’s model at sized up the young Swede at season’s end. As a reminder, Micah’s model attempts to take into account teammates, competition, and coaching impacts such as deployment:

At 5v5, Brännström’s neither hurting nor helping offensively, and is a slight negative defensively. On the power play the Sens were again neither helped nor hurt by his presence — though I will note here that this was a marked improvement on a group that struggled mightily when Brännström was not the quarterback. Brännström played almost all of his minutes with two partners: Erik Gudbranson and Artem Zub.

Story of the Season:

The story of Brännström’s season can be divided into two parts: before and after the trade deadline. Brännström didn’t make it into the Sens’ line-up for the first ten games of the season, only appearing for the first time on February 4th against Montreal. He had been playing in the Swiss league prior to the start of the season, and his quarantine period upon arrival meant that he was only able to practice once during training camp. By the time Brännström made his season debut, Ottawa was an abysmal 1-8-1 and were coming off a string of embarrassing losses against the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. It seems strange to look back on that time considering the tear they went on to end the campaign, but the Sens were reeling and all of the lofty talk of contending for a play-off spot in the North Division was basically out the window less than a fifth of the way into the season. Nonetheless, Brännström would only play 17 of the team’s first 43 games before dressing for the final thirteen. With Mike Reilly and Christian Wolanin traded, and Thomas Chabot injured, Brännström saw his ice time jump up to 22:31 a game for the last five games. It’s also worth noting here, however, that Brännström played only 12:56 in the last game before Chabot was injured.

As for why DJ  Smith has been reluctant to trust the biggest piece in the Mark Stone trade, it mostly would seem to come back to wanting to see Brännström break up the cycle with more frequency. Whenever the Sens’ coach was asked about why Brännström was sitting, the reply was always along the lines of: “Brännström does good things with the puck, but he needs to do more to break up the cycle and defend better at the NHL level. He’s young and he’ll get better”.  Whether Smith finally warmed up to Brännström or was simply playing the players that he had available to him down the stretch, there’s no doubt that the latter part of the year rescued what was amounting to something of a lost season and gave the rearguard some reason to believe he’ll have a chance to make the team out of camp next year.

Future Outlook:

When Pierre Dorion traded Mark Stone, he said that it was the “proudest day I’ve ever had as an NHL GM” — a remark that he eventually went on to apologize for. Hyperbole aside, Dorion’s boasting was largely based on the assumption that Brännström would turn out to be a star defender. Two and a half years on, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that will be the case but that’s not to say all is lost: Brännström is still just 21 years old, and his play down the stretch this year showcased a lot of that tantalizing talent that had Dorion so hyped up in the first place. The Sens’ blueline has struggled to move the puck for years, and Brännström immediately addresses that area of need; it’s not too much of a stretch to envision a situation where his defensive play is improved just enough to allow his offensive game to shine through. For Brännström though, that improvement needs to come sooner than later as there’s currently a gaping hole behind Chabot on the depth chart but the Sens didn’t take Jake Sanderson fifth overall last year to not afford him every opportunity to lock down a prominent role on the Ottawa blueline. Next year will be crucial in determining just what kind of future Brännström has with the franchise, and given how little we’ve actually seen of him in the NHL so far there’s a wide range of possibilities for just how that might play out.

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