In the throes of a rebuild, the Ottawa Senators have no shortage of issues.
As was painfully illustrated in Monday’s 8-2 thrashing in Carolina, the Senators still give up too many shots and scoring chances, and their power play barely registers on the meter. Clicking along at 6.6 per cent, dead last in the NHL, the Senators might want to consider declining the man advantage, since they are more competitive at even strength.
Almost beyond comprehension, the Senators have as many shorthanded goals (four) as they do power play goals (four). And that is off 61 power play opportunities.
With so many fish to fry as a group, individual struggles can fly under the radar.
For example, rookie defenceman Erik Brannstrom seems to be surviving rather than thriving in his first NHL season. Three years ago, Brannstrom was captain of his SuperElit J20 team, named the league’s top defenceman, and produced more than a point per game before jumping up to play with the men of the Swedish Hockey League. He was captain of Sweden’s world junior team in 2018-19, a WJC all-star and led the tournament in goals by a defenceman with four.
It is at least time to ask the question: would Brannstrom be better served by a stint in the American Hockey League, where he could not only play more, but be on the ice in all situations, including penalty killing and first-unit power play, to help him regain his confidence and scoring touch?
After 16 games played, Brannstrom has one assist and played 13 minutes, 41 seconds per game, on average. For comparison, Thomas Chabot is playing nearly twice as much, at 26:07 per game. Even Ottawa’s No. 6 defenceman, Mark Borowiecki, is at 16:04 per game.
But perhaps the most telling statistic for a player expected to provide offence once he finds his way? Brannstrom has 13 shots on goal in 16 games, including just one shot in his past eight games.
While everyone had a tough night in Raleigh Monday, Brannstrom was certainly no exception — a minus-three with zero shots — with the misfortune of tipping a Carolina shot past Anders Nilsson into the Ottawa goal.
Brannstrom’s ice time game logs tell a story by themselves. Against San Jose Oct. 27: 7:59 TOI. Nov. 2, Boston: 14:15; Nov. 4, NYR: 15:41. Nov. 7, LA: 9:51. Nov. 9, Carolina: 15:55 and then 14:22 against Carolina in the second of the back-to-back.
Brannstrom was a healthy scratch for the Nov. 5 game against the New York Islanders, a 4-1 loss.
Depending on the situation — are the Senators ahead or behind? Protecting a tight lead? Killing penalties? — the rookie’s ice time gets impacted as head coach D.J. Smith tries to protect him.
Even with the extra man, Brannstrom sees limited power play duty. In the Rangers game, Chabot saw 7:48 of power play time, Brannstrom 2:12. Against the Sharks, Chabot was 4:09 on the power play and Brannstrom 1:32.
On Monday, Brannstrom had 1:36 of PP, Chabot 3:59.
Brannstrom could be getting that kind of power play exposure in Belleville and growing from it.
Brannstrom said after being made a healthy scratch, "it was good for me to watch the game," as he viewed things differently.
It could be even better for him to return to the AHL, play 20-plus minutes and try to exert his will on a game. Cody Goloubef has been the extra defenceman on Ottawa’s roster all season and filled in for Brannstrom against the Islanders.
For a raw rookie who started the season as a teenager, Brannstrom has somewhat survived. He is defending better than some might have expected for a small – five-foot-10, 179-pound, offensively gifted defenceman. He uses his quick feet to angle out forwards on the wall, and boxes out pretty well out front. Occasionally, he takes a beating coming out of his own zone, along the boards. He’s been on the ice for four more goals against than goals scored.
But Brannstrom has a lot more upside than just being OK.
In the big picture, Brannstrom is expected to be a franchise cornerstone and this first-round draft choice (selected 15th overall by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in 2017) was considered the most significant acquisition by the Senators in all their trade deadline deals, which saw them part with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Mark Stone.
Dorion was so excited getting Brannstrom in the Stone deal he called it his "proudest day as a general manager." (At season’s end, Dorion walked back those comments somewhat, saying he meant no disrespect to a fan favourite like Stone, but added: "Erik Brannstrom, we think, is going to be a future star in the NHL.")
Getting there is the tricky part, especially for a young defenceman in the NHL, where losing confidence can be fatal.
At barely 20 years of age – he had his birthday Sept. 2 – Brannstrom is two weeks older than Brady Tkachuk, a man-child who plays as though he is 20 going on 30.
Tkachuk is six-foot-four, 212 pounds and a physical force at the wing position. Tkachuk stepped into the NHL at 19, was groomed by Stone, and has never really looked out of place.
The formula for Tkachuk is relatively simple. Power up and down the wing, drive to the net, hit everyone in sight and produce points on Ottawa’s top line. In his second NHL season Tkachuk has been a force and is starting to roll offensively, tied for second in team scoring with 11 points.
In contrast, for a young defenceman like Brannstrom, the responsibilities are endless.
"When he’s a finished product, you want to see him as an active guy that can break pucks out, that can also defend and can do some things on the power play," Smith told reporters in Boston last week.
"That’s the finished product. The hardest part is to learn the defensive side of the game and learn to move pucks and stay away from big mistakes. For a young guy, especially for a defenceman, that happens a lot, but he’s way ahead of the curve."
Occasionally, the subject of sending Brannstrom down gets discussed. To this point, Smith has always said he likes the idea of Brannstrom learning alongside a longtime NHL veteran like Ron Hainsey, who has been partnered with Brannstrom all season.
There’s no harm in reuniting them again — after a stint in Belleville to help the kid develop.