In February 2019, when the Ottawa Senators traded fan favourite Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights, the key piece in the return was then 19 year old defenseman, Erik Brannstrom. He had been the Knights first round selection at 15th overall in the 2017 draft and was already playing and having an impact in the AHL with two World Junior Hockey Championships under his belt.
When the trade was announced, Senators GM Pierre Dorion was quoted: “Our job as a hockey group is to look forward to how good our team is going to be down the road. I wish I could have brought all our fans with me on a big private charter plane two Fridays ago in Winnipeg when the Chicago Wolves played the Manitoba Moose because I left the rink there, and I was with assistant general manager Peter McTavish and our pro scout Jim Clark, and for what a 19-year-old did that game and what he's done all year in the American League, I know our fans might look at the short term, but trust me, long-term, this guy is a star.”
Since that time, Brannstrom has failed to crack the opening night line up out of training camp for the 3rd year in a row. He has dressed for 63 games at the NHL level spread over two seasons and change where he has recorded 2 goals and 17 points and a +/- of -6.
Now all of 22 years old, the jury is still out about Brannstrom’s ability to survive, much less thrive, as an NHL defenseman.
Dorion did emphasize long term and Brannstrom is still waiver exempt on a two-way contract. However, when your team boasts a defensive core of Thomas Chabot, Artem Zub, Nick Holden, Nikita Zaitsev, Victor Mete, Michael Del Zotto and Josh Brown, it’s a little disconcerting to think that this long-term star couldn’t crack that lineup.
When Brady Tkachuk was unsigned, I understood why Brannstrom didn’t crack the opening night roster as the Senators needed to get to the salary floor and both Brown and Del Zotto helped get them there if you can believe it.
However, with Tkachuk now on an $8.25 Million AAV deal, the issue of the salary floor is no longer there. Yet Brannstrom remains in Belleville and Del Zotto and his $2 Million AAV has dressed for two of the first seven games and Brown is already a -7 with no points to show for the season so far. Nick Holden has been marginally better.
The question for Sens Nation must be: Is Brannstrom a Prospect, a Tweener or a Bust? Depending on your answer, the next question becomes: What is his future in the organization?
When you consider that DJ Smith is on the payroll for the rest of this season and the following three, Brannstrom’s future is anything but clear at this point.
Clearly, Smith has a soft spot in his heart for Josh Brown. He was the captain of the Memorial Cup Champion Oshawa Generals coached by Smith in 2015. He is a UFA at season’s end. Del Zotto is on the payroll for next season as well. These are two players that are standing between Brannstrom and the NHL?
How long can a 22 year old player with 85 AHL games under his belt be considered a prospect? His numbers this year aren’t flattering through four names with no points and a -5 rating. Then again, the leading scorer in Belleville has four points and only two players are on the + side of the ledger. Of course, Brannstrom is expected to be a catalyst on offense at the AHL level. The belief was that Belleville was positioned for greater success this year. However, with Colin White going down, Logan Shaw has been in the NHL rather than potentially being an impact player in the AHL.
Nonetheless, until this season, Brannstrom has performed like a player who can excel at the AHL level averaging .75 points per game. This has not translated into similar results at the NHL level. Granted, in the AHL, he is a number one power play defenseman. In the NHL, that seat at the table is taken by Thomas Chabot. Still, it has to be worrisome he hasn’t taken a clear step forward in his progression. Could he be one of those career AHL players or a player better suited to the large ice surface in the KHL? Perhaps another tweener like Chris Wideman?
To classify him as a bust, you are saying that not only is he not going to be a regular in the NHL, he also isn’t likely to get more than a qualifying offer from the Senators at best following this season. This assumes he is still with the team at year’s end.
If you are looking at what Mark Stone has done in Vegas and compare it to Brannstrom’s contribution to the Senators, it’s very lopsided. It seems a little premature to start throwing around the word bust but that word can’t be thrown away either. At the very least, it is hard to imagine Brannstrom resembling Pierre Dorion’s description from February 2019. Even if Brannstrom turns out to be a bottom pair defenseman with the team, that is not what he was acquired for. Bust doesn’t necessarily mean can’t play in the NHL. It could mean never came close to his projection.
From my vantage point, I see Brannstrom as an NHL defenseman who isn’t likely to improve much by playing in the AHL. He will play top minutes he has already played several times before. He may even start to regress somewhat if he feels like the team is starting to doubt what they traded for. He can take an “I’ll show them attitude”. At 22, there are worse places to play than the AHL. He also has to be looking at the team he didn’t make and wonder what he isn’t doing to get a full time shot.
My concern is more that the head coach in the NHL does not seem sold on Brannstrom. If this is no longer a rebuild and the team is playing for keeps, are the Senators telling their fans that the best chance of winning this year is with Del Zotto and Brown toiling in the show? If yes, then they are clearly operating with more information than I have.
I watched the pre-season and Brannstrom didn’t light the world on fire. That said, he was clearly top five in my mind. The word on Brannstrom you hear most often is he doesn’t have elite speed for a guy his size. I will agree with that. However, he has speed to spare when you consider who is playing ahead of him. I understand Del Zotto and Brown are on one-way contracts and need to clear waivers before going to the AHL. Does anyone believe that another team would take either one of them? If they did take them, send flowers. If not, let them stabilize the AHL development and become depth players for the team.
I still view Brannstrom as a prospect but not necessarily with the Senators. When the brain trust saw fit to bring in Del Zotto and Nick Holden in the off season, the first players I thought of were Brannstrom and Mete and what that meant for them. Both Del Zotto and Holden are left shot defensemen like them. Clearly Mete is ahead of Brannstrom on the depth chart which also may have to do with contract status and the latter being waiver exempt. Regardless of the reason, the guy filling out the lineup card for potentially the next four seasons isn’t sold on Brannstrom’s value. Add to the discussion that Jake Sanderson will likely dress for Senators before the trade deadline, it’s hard to find a chair for #26 when the music stops.
I don’t view Brannstrom as a Tweener, necessarily, but the Wideman comparison isn’t entirely invalid. If you want to be a long-term defenseman in the league at 5’9” and 185 pounds, you need to move like Torey Krug or Ryan Ellis. Brannstrom doesn’t do that so he will likely have to find a situation where he can play a specific role and specific minutes. I don’t see that opportunity here. If the explosive speed and agility were there, it would have shown itself by now.
In terms of a future with the Senators organization, I see Brannstrom being moved between now and the deadline. The rumours are already in the Twittersphere. You can believe none of what you hear and half of what you see but when those rumours are out there, most of the time it ends in a parting of the ways. Of course, the Senators will be selling at well below what was projected unless Brannstrom is recalled between now and then and shows some promise as a top 5 NHL defenseman.
Regardless of whether he does show some value, I think it behooves Dorion to move on from this player given what the team has coming. I would not trade him from Belleville. He has to play in the NHL if they are going to get anything close to what they might like and, for what it’s worth, I think the Senators chances of winning go up with him in the lineup versus Del Zotto, Brown or even Holden.
Dorion continues to distinguish himself as a man with an eye for amateur talent that can play in the NHL. His Tkachuk signing gives him some credibility short term. However, Brannstrom isn’t the only potential Tweener in the Senators organization. Their GM and newly signed VP of Player Development need to show they can find missing pieces through Pro Scouting lest they be labelled Tweeners at the Executive Level.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey