The Ottawa Senators have started to rebound from what was a very miserable start to the season. Injuries, COVID, bad luck, and bad play all factored into a horrible start for a team looking to improve on their record this season. However, things have seemingly started to change. A sweep of Alberta and a 7-3-1 record in their last 11 games has given this team hope. Part of the switch has been a change on the blueline. Youth such as Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and Erik Brannstrom have been given a shot.
This has helped the team have more puck movers, allowing them to easily break out of their own end and into the offensive zone. While all of the young defencemen have had up and downs, the past two games have started to show just why Erik Brannstrom deserves a longer look on this team.
Erik Brannstrom Starting to Look Comfortable
Obviously, the Brannstrom time in Ottawa has not gone as planned. He was the key piece in the return for fan favourite and elite winger Mark Stone. The General Manager even described the trade as the “proudest day of his life as a General Manager”. However, things have not gone as well since. Brannstrom hasn’t developed as the team was hoping he would, but he also hasn’t always been given a fair shot. When brought up, he has rarely been in a position to succeed. His partners have rarely been good NHLers, more often being veterans that are near the end of their career and aren’t a great on-ice fit for him.
Despite this, Brannstrom managed to look alright at times anyways. When paired with Ron Hainsey he had underwhelming offensive results but was actually not bad in his own end. His defensive results were above average, especially for the Senators blueline. However, he was sent to the AHL anyways.
That offseason, the Senators brought in defencemen that created a log jam for players like Brannstrom to make the lineup. However, by the end of the season, injuries and trades gave him his chance and both he and Victor Mete looked really comfortable in top four roles. Yet, Ottawa once again brought in more veterans to block the path this offseason. Michael Del Zotto was brought in just to be waived in 30 games when it didn’t work out. Now, Brannstrom is once again getting a shot to show what he has, and once again it looks better than the veterans he is replacing.
Alberta Trip Showed Off Use of Brannstrom
Analytically, Brannstrom has been solid the past two games. His possession numbers have been near the top of the team in both games for both Corsi and Expected Goals. However, his eye test has been just as impressive at times too. Against the Calgary Flames, there were multiple plays where his smooth skating and great puck skills worked him out of trouble.
Brannstrom with a nice move at centre ice. pic.twitter.com/p4Ykhjcugl
— Alex Metzger (@nhlsensandstuff) January 14, 2022
The play above is just one example of his skating to move the puck. While it didn’t end up in anything, the ability to create like that can be a huge help for a team that lacks defencemen who can move the puck. Multiple other times in the game he evaded pressure from an on-coming forechecker to move the puck and get it out of danger. If he can do this more often, it would be an invaluable player to have on your second or third pair.
Left and Right Side
One of the biggest pushing points with Brannstrom and the Sens over the years has been their lack of willingness to let him play his off-side. Brannstrom has expressed want to play the right side, despite being a left-handed defenceman. However, the management and coaching staff haven’t liked the idea. Against the Edmonton Oilers, Brannstrom ended up playing alongside Thomas Chabot though.
This change is something we haven’t seen from any Sens staff with Brannstrom and is encouraging to see from DJ Smith. It was a very limited six minutes of play together, but it was encouraging regardless. Chabot looked comfortable having another player to move the puck out there, as he has with JBD too. Brannstrom also looked very comfortable not having to be the guy to do all the puck-moving on his pair.
Being a secondary option was an interesting look for him and something Ottawa should want to explore. Yes, you want more out of a cornerstone return in a trade. However, at this point you need to accept Brannstrom won’t be a top-pair dominant defenceman. If he can be a secondary player that helps out Chabot or even plays alongside someone like Artyom Zub, that is a very useful piece to have. Even being a guy who can run his own third pair would be helpful. Regardless, it is obvious he is an NHL player. Using this season to explore what type of NHLer he is will be critical.
Potential Concerns and His Future
His last two games by no means have been perfect. Brannstrom is still clearly figuring out how to adjust and use a smaller body in the NHL. In Calgary, he took a brutal boarding call in the first period. However, instead of being immediately benched, Smith showed confidence and continued to send him out there. That led to an obvious gain of composure for Brannstrom as the game went on. In Edmonton, he had his moments too. However, the upside was once again very clearly there.
Regardless of where he ends up, this is an opportunity for the Sens and Brannstrom. Giving him a shot going forward here can not only help his game grow but at the very least showcase what he has for other teams. His trade value is at an all-time low and if the Sens don’t see Erik Brannstrom in the future, they need to at least work on getting a good return for him. Showing he is an NHL player would be the way to do that. And if he plays like he has the past two games, opportunities should keep on coming.