TORONTO — At this time of year, it’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement.
The trades. The steals. The blunders.
But it’s also easy to forget the players involved are human, not just avatars with skill ratings, salaries and potential.
Their lives are uprooted, career trajectories shifted and expectations changed.
That’s exactly what happened to Erik Brannstrom and Vitaly Abramov, who were acquired by the Ottawa Senators around last year’s trade deadline as part of the packages for Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, respectively.
The Senators unloaded the pair of stars as they continued cleaning house in the rebuild they started when Erik Karlsson was shipped out of town earlier that season, with the trove of prospects and picks they received back ostensibly laying the groundwork for a return to contention in Ottawa.
Being a slick-skating, dynamic Swede, Brannstrom — the Vegas Golden Knights’ 15th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft — drew obvious comparisons to the team’s former captain. The five-foot-nine, 181-pound defenceman joined Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, the Belleville Senators, for the stretch run and made the big club out of training camp this season. But after putting up just four points in 31 games, with his ice time diminished, Brannstrom was sent down to the AHL last month.
The 20-year-old admitted that, perhaps, the weight of those expectations spawning from the trade and the stress involved with trying to reach them were at the root of his “slow start.”
“Maybe, yeah, there was kind of a lot of hype there,” said Brannstrom after Belleville fell to the Toronto Marlies 7-6 in overtime last weekend.
“I mean, Mark Stone is a really good player, so I don’t know. I don’t think many thought I was going to be recalled (his first full year), so I don’t know about that. But I enjoyed being up there and I learned the game up there.”
Brannstrom — who was given a heads-up and was following along on the Internet on deadline day when he found he was being traded — said he was aware of the pressure that comes with being forever linked to a trade of that magnitude, but was excited about joining the Senators nonetheless.
“I was a little bit surprised. I didn’t think they were gonna trade me, but it ended up pretty good. I’m happy to be here,” he said.
Since joining Belleville, which tops the AHL’s North Division, Brannstrom has been on a tear, rattling off 21 points in 25 games.
“… I got down here and got my confidence back, and I think it is going better and better all the time now, so it’s fun to score some goals and get some points again.”
“I’m really excited for the future, I think we’re going to be really good here.”
Just a few days before the Senators landed Brannstrom, Abramov was a little more caught off guard when the Columbus Blue Jackets informed him of his trade to Ottawa.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” the 21-year-old winger, who was on the ice for a morning skate with the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters, recalled.
“I went the same day to Binghamton, I was supposed to play for Belleville that night, but I didn’t make it on time, so just watched the game … and I left all my clothes in Cleveland, I couldn’t (get them) for like two weeks and I just had like a suit basically, and like a couple of gym shirts.”
Abramov — who has 35 points in 42 AHL games, earning him a cup of coffee in Ottawa earlier this season — has a different approach to handling the pressures of being forever linked to a blockbuster deal.
“I don’t know, I just don’t overthink it. (I) just focus on my game, go on the ice every day and practice hard, play hard and don’t read a lot of news,” the 2016 third-round pick said with a laugh.
The electrifying Russian was happy to be back playing in Canada — especially near the Gatineau area, where he spent two-plus seasons in the QMJHL — but the experience taught him to never get too comfortable.
“I was traded once in junior, too, but, obviously, it’s a little bit different,” said Abramov.
“And well, it’s probably, that you can be traded anytime, right? You never know, because I wasn’t expecting it — like it was my first year of a contract — but I got traded. And (you) just gotta be prepared for anything.”
Big trades have big-time impacts, ones that leave lasting impressions on those involved.
While things can’t simply go back to the way they were before, it’s important that young players, such as Brannstrom and Abramov, as well as the team, keep things in perspective, said Belleville’s coach Troy Mann.
“Well, from an organizational perspective, you got to have patience, right? Because and I know — just from my experience with Washington and Hershey — you’re able to let the Jakub Vranas of the world kind of percolate in the American Hockey League. Ottawa is in a little bit, obviously, different situation in the NHL than the Capitals are right now, but you still got to be patient with these kids, you can’t rush them too much,” he said.
“Because at the end of the day, as I say to them, ‘You know, when you go to the NHL, you don’t want to come back, right? And if you go up too early, or you’re not ready, then you’re going to get sent down again.’ And that’s something as an organization we should be very, very careful of is: at what point are they completely ready to play in the NHL?”