A dramatic change was evident in Erik Brannstrom during his second stint with Ottawa just before Christmas.
The five-foot-nine, 180-pound defenceman was more dynamic and confident, soaring up and down the ice with abandon. Against Tampa Bay on Dec. 17, Brannstrom was up on the rush and set up Connor Brown for a goal to bring the Senators within one. Later in the game, Brannstrom broke free and came close to scoring the winning goal – which would have been his first in the NHL – until he got tripped up at the last second.
"Next time," he said cheerily a day later in the Senators dressing room.
In his next game, Dec. 19 against Nashville, Brannstrom played a career-high 21:48 (which he topped by two seconds on Dec. 29 vs. New Jersey), had an outstanding overtime shift and drew the penalty that led to the OT winner by Anthony Duclair.
The updated view in Ottawa, before Brannstrom was sent back to Belleville last week: THAT’s the defenceman the Senators organization was so excited to get in the Mark Stone trade with Vegas at last year’s deadline.
The mobile, expressive young defenceman who can turn on a dime and support a power play.
The question is – was Brannstrom better because he regained confidence by playing more minutes in the AHL, or better because he was playing on his more familiar right defence position (with righties Nikita Zaitsev and Dylan DeMelo out of the lineup at the time)?
Or, was it a little bit of both, to borrow from Cory Clouston, a former Ottawa coach.
Here’s the thing. Brannstrom has said that he really prefers playing the right side, even though he shoots left. It’s the side he grew up playing.
"Yeah, I didn’t think it would be that different but I played last year the whole year in Chicago (AHL Wolves) and the pre-season with Vegas on the right side, so I kind of like it better, actually," Brannstrom said in a brief interview on the day of the game against the Predators.
The organization, though, has a different view, you might even say a mixed view, when the scouting department gets involved.
"I think as an organization we’ve had internal debates about whether he’s better on the left side or right side," Dorion said during a radio hit in Ottawa last week following the trade for defenceman Mike Reilly.
"I think the two people that matter the most, the coach and the GM, think he’s better on the left side."
Memo to the 20-year-old kid – your opinion takes a back seat.
Brannstrom, of course, is back in Belleville, playing big minutes as part of the offensive machinery that has been the B-Sens this season. In his past three games, Brannstrom has five assists and earned a rave review for his power play work.
In the four AHL games he played in early December, Brannstrom said he played three on the left side and one on the right.
Senators head coach D. J. Smith comes from the Mike Babcock school of defence positioning – believing D-men are best suited to their "natural" side, lefties on the left side and righties on the right, where they can pick pucks off the boards and don’t have to receive as many passes on their backhand.
But is left the right call for Brannstrom?
Dorion and Smith think so.
At least for the time being.
"In Belleville, we still want to win but at the same time we want to develop our players," Dorion said. "We both think playing on the left side will be more beneficial for his development, to be the best NHL player he can be. I think once you establish yourself you can go to your weaker side."
Smith has said the same thing. Once Brannstrom has played a few years in the league, he can easily move back if he wants.
It was encouraging to hear Brannstrom say how much he benefited from getting an AHL refresher. He doesn’t act like he’s a primo prospect entitled to be an NHL regular by age 20. (In fact, all of the Senators top prospects in Belleville have shown remarkable patience, especially winger Drake Batherson, who was the AHL scoring leader when he was finally recalled last week).
"Yeah, I think it was good for me to go to Belleville and get my confidence back and play a lot," Brannstrom told Sportsnet.ca, while in Ottawa. "I played almost 25 minutes per game in Belleville. It was good to have the puck and have fun again."
Last Friday, Brannstrom was sent back to Belleville – keep in mind, he was only recalled in mid-December due to the injuries on Ottawa’s blue line. Brannstrom was exposed on a couple of NHL plays, including getting out-muscled by Florida’s Mark Pysyk, which led to the Panthers’ fourth goal in a 6-3 Florida win last Thursday.
"It’s hard, especially when you don’t have a lot of older guys to help you out there," Smith said. Brannstrom, of course, was paired with ancient warrior Ron Hainsey for most of the fall. Hainsey has been out since Dec. 19.
"I thought when Erik came back (Dec. 16) he played better but for his development we wanted him down (in the AHL), Smith added. "The best thing for him is to go down there, run the power play, play all the big minutes and have success and continue to grow confidence."
During his long and short stints in Ottawa, totalling 31 games, Brannstrom recorded four assists and was minus-nine.
In seven games with Belleville, Brannstrom is plus-four and has one goal and eight assists. That goal was a game-winner.
During his radio hit, Dorion spoke of how much Brannstrom had improved after revisiting the AHL, suggesting it was a truer view of what he can be.
"He’s 20. It takes time," Dorion said. "Defence is the toughest position to play. We know we have a future star in Erik Brannstrom… and fans are going to love him."
Possibly, on the right and left side of the blue line.