Returning to Ottawa for training camp after a successful 10-game stint (two goals, six assists) with the SCL Tigers in Swiss NLA, Erik Brannstrom was forced to undergo a second quarantine after learning he came in close contact with someone who had the coronavirus.
Once deemed ready to participate in camp, the 21-year old was diagnosed with a minor injury, never really getting a shot to challenge for a roster spot on the Senators blue line. Brannstrom was left to skate with the American League Belleville group to get into game-shape before being inserted into the Senators’ lineup for his debut this season, February 4.
Just two games later, the left-shot defenseman suffered a minor injury which kept him out for four more. Upon his return, Brannstrom suited up for 11 of the next 12 games.
His ice-time was inconsistent ranging from a low of 5:19, when head coach D.J, Smith made the decision to roll with five defenders during a close game in Calgary, to a high of 19:50 the following game.
Not only was Brannstrom’s ice-time consistent, so was his play. The Golden Knights 2017 15th overall selection wasn’t able to find a rhythm. An argument can be made he didn’t receive a solid opportunity. But unlike forwards, young d-men aren’t allocated the same rope mainly due to their position possessing a hefty learning curve.
However, the native of Eskjo, Sweden made the most of his time, scoring his first two career goals in back-to-back games.
— Everyday Sens (@EverydaySens) February 24, 2021
Offense has never been an issue for the 5′. 10″, 180-pound blue-liner. Brannstrom is an agile mobile defenseman who excels with the puck. It’s the ability to handle stronger opposing forwards which is the organization’s main concern.
With this in mind, combined with Pierre Dorion wanting to see what the club has in potential Group 6 unrestricted free agent Christian Wolanin, the Senators GM dispatched Brannstrom to Belleville Thursday.
Dorion explained his reasoning for the decision in a radio interview Friday.
“I think with Erik Brannstrom, it’s something similar to Drake Batherson. Where Drake was last year, is where Erik is this year. We gave Drake 20-something games (23) last year. He showed us at times he could be a NHL player at times he showed us he wasn’t ready. It’s the same situation with Erik. Both guys are extremely talented., We’re not going to dispute that fact. Erik has offensive IQ, and he shoots the puck well. He can transition with his speed, with his brain, with his hands. Where Drake was last year – at times his play away from the puck as a forward and it’s the same with Erik, has to be better. He’s going to go down there, and at a certain time, I’m sure we’ll call him back up. We feel that he needs just a bit more time. We don’t want to rush these guys when they’re not playing well. Since Christian Wolanin has gotten back into the lineup, he’s given us some really good hockey. We know Erik will be a top four defenseman in the lineup. He just needs more time.”
To his credit, Brannstrom was full marks for a solid performance in his two appearances, each Belleville victories Friday-Saturday.
Mainly due to a game full of special teams Friday evening featuring five BSens power plays and an astounding nine penalty kills – also a PK unit which included Brannstrom who played 28-30 minutes according to head coach Troy Mann – picking up an assist.
The youngster followed up his strong performance by earning two more assists Saturday afternoon.
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Mann was impressed with Brannstrom’s attitude and willingness to improve his overall game. The Belleville coach already sees marked improvement from Brannstrom’s previous season.
“I believe so. I personally see it. That transition period was very unfortunate. We all know what happened – the training camp, he couldn’t break with the team. His attitude was excellent. That’s continued here. The day he arrived – you know I don’t think anyone likes being sent down – a high pick like Brannstrom who’s on the cusp of becoming a full-timer. A lot of prospects go through what he’s going through. Last year he didn’t play any penalty kill in Belleville. Watching the Sens play, he’s not seeing any PK work as well. He’s taken on that role. The last two nights we’ve been 18 for 18, (actually 17 for 17 per AHL stats), so his role has expanded with us,” said Mann.
“That should help his development. I don’t foresee his attitude changing. We’re going to continue to play him, and make sure he’s getting his minutes. Hopefully, he can continue work on his game without the puck – eliminate the cycle – cut the bottom off in d-zone coverage, working on some box outs. Those are the things he needs to get most consistent with at the NHL level. He’s a small player. He’s not going to be able to box out every player. It’s just impossible because his stature, but he’s got to continue to work on that. He’s very quick. Cutting the bottom off in the d-zone to eliminate plays down low is something D.J. to focus on, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
For his part all Brannstrom wants to do is play hockey whether it’s in Belleville or Ottawa.
“I didn’t play the last four games up there. It was good for me to come down here and play a lot. I think my confidence was pretty good when I was up too. Of course, there were a lot of good players. I just got to be better in my own end, play harder. My confidence is way better than last year. I make plays,” added the defenseman after Belleville’s 5-1 win Saturday.
“I was happy to come down and play a lot. We played hard. Of course, you want to come down with the right attitude, you want to win games.”
Receiving valuable time on the PK adds a new wrinkle to his arsenal. “It’s a great learning experience. I think I have the ability to play the penalty kill. It was good for me to play a lot of that here. It was fun to play more,” Brannstrom told Full Press Hockey.
Like Dorion, Mann recognizes the value of Brannstrom gaining more experience playing in the AHL.
“It happens to most prospects. There’s not too many Timmy Stützle’s out there. Some guys need more. I went through the same thing with Jakub Vrana with Hershey. He’s turned into a proven NHLer, but at the same time there were some ups and downs. And I don’t think Brannstrom is any different. Although he plays a different position, it may be a little bit longer based on how hard it is to play defense. Where Batherson and Vrana are two examples, but they are forwards. As long as he continues to work as we expect to and has a great attitude, we’ll try to make it better here. And the Sens will be the ones who benefit at some point, hopefully full-time.”