It’s been a forgettable year for the Ottawa Senators, but the arrival of Erik Brannstrom on Thursday offered a glimmer of hope for a discombobulated franchise.
The Senators haven’t had a defensive prospect with this much skill since fellow Swede Erik Karlsson arrived in 2009. The similarities are funny, actually: they were both selected 15th overall in their respective drafts (2008 for Karlsson, 2017 for Brannstrom, by the Vegas Golden Knights), made their NHL debuts at 19 and are highly regarded as dynamic two-way defenders. Rumor has it that Vegas' reluctance to trade Brannstrom last summer was what kept the team from landing Karlsson, too.
Starting to get excited about Brannstrom, Sens fans? You should be.
Acquired in the swap that sent Mark Stone to the Golden Knights at the March 1 trade deadline, Brannstrom has adjusted very well to the North American game. Since making his AHL debut in October with the Chicago Wolves, Brannstrom has recorded 29 points in 46 games, placing him third in scoring among U-20 skaters. He really came into his own at the 2019 World Junior Championship with Sweden, leading all defensemen with four goals and showcasing his ability to lead a power play, play 25 minutes a night and control the game with the puck on his stick. Brannstrom has done nothing but impress since then, making him the most important piece in the Stone trade.
On Thursday, Brannstrom brought something to the table Ottawa has been missing: speed. Lined up beside Dylan DeMelo on the Senators' second pairing, Brannstrom engaged in rushes and was quick to move the puck safely up the ice. Brannstrom didn't show any nerves in the game, doing a good job of shielding the puck and throwing hits when needed. For a kid making his NHL debut, he looked like a veteran.
And for a team with weak defensive depth in the system, Brannstrom’s presence is welcomed. Ottawa's defense is still rather young, though it has decent potential with current defenders Thomas Chabot, Christian Wolanin and Christian Jaros all expected to be part of the team's long-term future. With Chabot rounding into form as a high-end top-pair blueliner, he and Brannstrom would give the Senators a 1-2 blueline punch that would be the envy of most NHL teams.
Right now, the team is simply full of inexperience. The Senators admitted to entering into a rebuild just two years after narrowly missing the Stanley Cup final, and many key players – including Karlsson, the best player Ottawa has ever had – have been shipped out of town to make way for the future. Brannstrom is a part of that next wave.
Brannstrom was sent back to the Belleville Senators today in time for the AHL playoffs, but he'll have every opportunity to join Ottawa’s blueline full-time next season in a top-four role.
Fans have quickly warmed up to the idea of Brannstrom being a major team fixture. Given how similar his game is to another Swedish defensive star that made a name for himself in Ottawa, there's optimism around the Senators' new Scandinavian king.