Cross another item off the Ottawa Senators’ summertime to-do list. The Sens have signed restricted free agent Erik Brannstrom to a one-year contract worth $900,000. The deal comes three days after Brannstrom’s 23rd birthday, and buys time for the club to figure out exactly what the puck-moving defenseman can deliver at the NHL level.
Simply put, is Brannstrom going to be good enough to be part of Ottawa’s Stanley Cup solution?
When Sens GM Pierre Dorion acquired Brannstrom from the Vegas Golden Knights in February of 2019, he definitely thought so.
“We’re thrilled to welcome Erik Brannstrom to Ottawa,” Dorion said on the day of the deal. “In addition to being an exceptional young man with great leadership skills, high character, high talent, his presence on the ice is electric and I’m confident that our fans will love him.”
Dorion doubled down on those comments, suggesting it was his “proudest day as a GM.” With the popular Mark Stone leaving Ottawa in the same deal, Dorion eventually realized that may have alienated some fans. He later apologized for that declaration, largely because Brannstrom hadn’t yet shown signs of being the “electric” NHL player he’d envisioned.
With today’s re-signing, Dorion wasn’t exactly gushing about Brannstrom – not the way he had three and a half years earlier.
“Erik is among our group of young players who we’re looking upon to take another step forward next season,” Dorion said today in a club press release. “He’s competitive, has an ability to efficiently move the puck and showed well when asked to take on an increased role last season. We’re hopeful that experience pays dividends for him in the year ahead.”
On the plus side, Brannstrom is still just 23 and there’s no question it often takes a defenseman much longer to develop than forwards. He has shown Chabot-like flashes of excellence with the puck. And most of his limited success has been achieved without the help of the team’s better defensemen at his side. Brannstrom has two goals and 29 assists with 71 penalty minutes over 116 NHL games.
On the negative side, Brannstrom has that tough combination of being really small and not super-fast when sprinting back to retrieve pucks. He also lacks the ability to consistently avoid big hits from oncoming forecheckers.
Brannstrom certainly hasn’t won over head coach D.J Smith. If the kid is still part of the long-range plans here, Smith needs to do his part to try and restore the swagger the kid had back in junior when he captained Sweden’s World Junior team.
Even if Brannstrom suddenly figures it all out, he’ll still be in competition with the other non-physical puck movers Ottawa has in its defensive pipeline, like fellow first rounders Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Dorion’s statement today specifically referenced that Brannstrom was merely “among the group of young players” they’re looking upon to take another step forward.
Signing today for almost the NHL’s minimum wage tells you precisely how much work Brannstrom has to do this season to restore the incredible excitement this club once had about him.
By Steve Warne