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The Erik Brannstrom Dilemma: Fish or Cut Bait?

Erik Brannstrom came to the Ottawa Senators as the lynch pin piece of the Mark Stone trade in February 2019 from the Vegas Golden Knights. He was Vegas’ first round selection in 2017 at 15th overall and had yet to play in the NHL. He had been toiling in the AHL at the time of the trade with some very respectable numbers.

At the time of the trade, General Manager, Pierre Dorion called it his proudest moment as GM and that “trust me, this kid is gonna be a star”.

Now four years and 182 regular season games later, Brannstrom is a full time NHL defenseman finishing up the one-year contract he signed in the off season. He will be a restricted free agent on July 1st with eligibility for arbitration should an agreement not be reached.

Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Sens Nation has been waiting on this player like the Messiah since his arrival in Ottawa. His inability to crack the opening day lineup for 3 years post acquisition sent off all kinds of alarm bells. Even when in Ottawa, he had to work his way into DJ Smith’s trust to get into the lineup on a regular basis.

For a player who was brought here to be a power play QB type defenceman with offensive upside, he went more than 100 games without registering a goal. In addition to Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson whom you would expect to have more points than Brannstrom, he also has trailed Travis Hamonic and Nick Holden in team scoring and likely would have trailed Artem Zub were it not for injury. I have no recollection of ever seeing Brannstrom in a three-on-three overtime. I am not saying it hasn’t happened. It just hasn’t happened when it mattered.

Since being scratched for the New York Rangers game on March 2nd when Jakob Chychrun played his first game in a Senators uniform, Brannstrom has elevated his level of play to where it had not been since coming to Ottawa. This has clearly been his best season as a Senator. He has shown the ability to avoid taking heavy contact. He carries the puck with confidence, makes a good first pass and for a player of his stature, he has shown the ability to defend effectively without taking penalties.

So, now that the Senators have developed Brannstrom into a regular every day NHLer, the question becomes “What do they do with him?”

Here are the options from my vantage point:

1) Make a Qualifying Offer

As a restricted free agent, this is all that is required to keep Brannstrom in the fold or to at least continue to control the asset. If Brannstrom elects to go the route of arbitration, the Senators can negotiate a deal to avoid it or see what comes of the hearing and decide then. This option just buys the team some time to get through free agency.

Most arbitration hearings get avoided at the last minute in a hilarious game of chicken. Mathieu Joseph is the one that most recently comes to mind for the Senators.

If the Senators go that route, I would hope the negotiations would not end with a four year extension. More on that later.

2) Trade at or leading up to the draft

When I think of Erik Brannstrom and parallels, I think of Rasmus Sandin. Both are 23 years old. Brannstrom is six months older. Brannstrom was a first rounder in 2017. Sandin was a first rounder in 2018.

Sandin was traded to Washington at the deadline this year in return for defenceman Erik Gustafsson and a first round pick in 2023.

Sandin’s offensive numbers are superior to Brannstrom’s and the latter has played more games. He also plays with Auston Mattews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares on a team that has made the playoffs every year he has been in the league.

I am not suggesting a similar bounty in return for Brannstrom. However, the Senators did not pick in the first round in 2022. Thanks to the Chychrun trade and assuming the Senators pick doesn’t land them in the top five, they won’t be picking in the first round this year either.

This year’s draft is supposed to be especially deep. If Brannstrom could put Ottawa back in the first round this year, that’s an option worth serious consideration.

Most of us remember when the Senators traded the 16th overall pick in 2010 (Vladimir Tarasenko) to St. Louis for David Rundblad who was the 17th overall pick in 2009. However, in that instance, Rundblad had not played in the NHL. He was an unproven commodity.

Whoever trades for Brannstrom would be getting a legitimate player with top five potential. Depending on how he plays down the stretch, his value will never be higher than it is now.

3) Sign & Trade

Anyone who trades for Brannstrom prior to the draft will have to handle the qualifying offer and possibly the arbitration process.

The Senators might add some value to Brannstrom by giving him a contract extension that has cost certainty appeal to a potential suitor.

Sens Nation should recall the Marian Hossa for Dany Heatley maneuver.

This doesn’t happen often and would need to be worked out prior to signing. I can see where this would leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth if their employer manipulated them into thinking they were part of the future only to ship them off almost immediately afterward.

That said, it is still an option and if the return were to improve as a result, then this is a business after all. Bonus points if it could be done prior to the draft this year and put the Senators in the first round.

4) Sign to a Multi-Year Extension

With all that the Senators have gone through to bring this asset to the point where he is now an established player, I can see where there might be some reluctance to trade him. Everyone worries that the fruits of the Senators labour will become the food on someone else’s plate.

Though he has established himself as an everyday player in the league, he has not established himself as a top four defenceman who would command top dollar. His next contract will put him in the seven-figure club but only barely. He would be an affordable player who could fill in higher in the lineup in case of injury.

There is an argument that could be made for this option to be sure. Sometimes the devil you know beats the devil you don’t. The only question is this: “Would a championship calibre team carry a five/six defenceman of this stature?”

If the Senators are building towards a championship with a top four of Thomas Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Artem Zub and now Jakob Chychrun, is a 5’10” 185 lb defenceman with marginal offensive upside part of that winning puzzle? Can a defenceman with that kind of frame withstand the rigours of a role that involves more penalty kill than power play and more shut down/checking type situations?

I would rank the options as follows:

1) Trade at or leading up to the draft

2) Sign & Trade

3) Make a Qualifying Offer

4) Sign to a Multi-Year Contract Extension

In the end, if Sign and Trade were to happen at or leading up to the draft, I could see that as being the ideal option. The return would be higher. With all that is happening leading up to the draft, I don’t know if this is feasible to accomplish unless Brannstrom is in on it somehow.

My interest is getting the Senators back into the first round this year without exercising the top five protection on the Chychrun trade. If moving Brannstrom could put the Senators back in the first round this year, I would take my chances on their amateur scouting department seven days a week. Brannstrom could be someone else’s top four defenceman or second unit power play defenceman. The Chychrun trade pretty much negated any possibility of Brannstrom playing in the Senators top four barring injury. It almost seems like a statement to that effect.

I would avoid a multi-year extension unless it was part of a sign and trade. I am not certain if what we are seeing is the emergence of Erik Brannstrom or an indication of him reaching his ceiling or close to it. From my vantage point, the Senators shouldn’t be in it to be competitive. They should be in it to win it. I don’t see this player in a bottom pair role being a part of that winning formula.

Samuel Girard won a championship in Colorado, and you could argue that he is a fifth defenceman on a really strong team. They are similar in age and stature. However, Girard’s offensive production has been more than double Brannstrom’s throughout his career. If Brannstrom was delivering at that level, he would already be on a longer-term deal and the need to go out and get Jakob Chychrun might have been less pressing.

That hasn’t happened. I understand that, aside from Egor Sokolov, Brannstrom is all that is left of the Stone trade. That said, Pierre Dorion needs to put his pride aside and recoup his investment now while Brannstrom is playing his best hockey.

Surely between possibly re-signing Travis Hamonic, continuing to develop Jacob-Bernard Docker, Lassi Thomson or possibly Tyler Kleven or even free agency, the Senators can get a larger and more rugged player capable of slowing the opposition down coming through the neutral zone.

Missing the first round of the draft two years in a row might be a necessary evil to filling an important role(s) within an organization. However, if you can fill those roles and participate in the first round of a deep draft, the Senators’ amateur scouting department seems like the safest bet to making good on that Stone trade.

By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey


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