Senators blue line takes youthful turn with Brannstrom, Bernard-Docker, Mete

Trevor Lewis scored shorthanded in the third and it held up as the winner with the Winnipeg Jets beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2.

The Ottawa Senators blue line is getting younger by the day.

While the plan was to ease those two college kids, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto, into the lineup, an injury to Nikita Zaitsev changed things in a hurry.

Despite being involved in just one full team practice the day before, Bernard-Docker, 20, made his NHL debut versus the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday evening. No. 48 in your ever-changing program.

"It’s a game that I prepared my whole life for," said Bernard-Docker, a native of Canmore, Alta.

For months, Ottawa fans had envisioned a defence corps that included "JBD" alongside Thomas Chabot, and that’s exactly where he was slotted in his first game, although the Senators moved the pairings around a bit to get Chabot more time (26:39) and limit Bernard-Docker to 15:33.

With Zaitsev still hobbling from a shot block in Monday’s game against the Jets, Bernard-Docker was told in the morning to prepare as though he was playing. But the rookie wasn’t sure he was making his debut until about an hour before game time. His pre-game nap was a fit of restlessness, Bernard-Docker said.

"The coaching staff and all the guys did an amazing job of making me feel comfortable and making it a fun night for me," Bernard-Docker said. "Obviously, we didn’t come out on the winning side, but everyone was nice enough to say congratulations to me after the game and take a picture with me.

"It was a really special moment for me. I had a blast out there."

Clearly, JBD was in survival mode his first few shifts.

"There’s parts of the game that are really different (from college)," Bernard-Docker said. "Going back and getting pucks, their forwards were really quick on the forecheck. And physical. So, I didn’t have a lot of time with the puck."

As the game went on, Bernard-Docker looked more and more comfortable. He is a heady player, as advertised. Not flashy, but solid. He reads the game.

"There were a couple of times on the point there, he made a couple of good offensive plays," said Senators head coach D.J. Smith. "With his head up. He’s a real smart player. He sees what’s going on, and as he learns the pace and adjusts to practice he’ll continue to get better."

It’s a wonder Bernard-Docker’s legs didn’t feel like jelly, considering he and Pinto, signed out of the University of North Dakota, spent seven days in a hotel quarantine before getting in just one full team practice on Tuesday, plus a couple of game morning skates. JBD should have his legs for Saturday’s game in Montreal.

Talk about a youthful turn. With Bernard-Docker, Erik Brannstrom and Victor Mete in the lineup against Winnipeg, fully half of Ottawa’s six defencemen were 22 and under.

At the start of the year, it wasn’t unusual to see a Senators D deployment like this:

Thomas Chabot/Nikita Zaitsev
Mike Reilly/Erik Gudbranson
Braydon Coburn/Josh Brown
Average age: 28.5

On Wednesday, the pairings looked like this, for the most part:

Chabot/Jacob Bernard-Docker
Erik Brannstrom/Artem Zub
Victor Mete/Brown
Average age: 23.1

That’s five years lopped off the average age, with Brown, 27, as the elder statesman on the blue line.

Brannstrom’s time to shine

For a young defenceman who had played a minor role in just 16 games prior to the NHL trade deadline, Brannstrom has been a popular topic on social media.

His ink to minutes played ratio was off the charts.

Why wasn’t he playing more for a last place Senators team in a rebuild? Why were so many place-holding veterans standing in his way? Did the coach hate him?

These questions and more were rampant through the first three months of this condensed 56-game schedule.

Now, to use a quaint expression, Brannstrom’s ship has come in.

In an Ottawa system that rigidly deploys left-shooting defencemen on the left side and righties on the right – the left side of the Senators blue line has been cleaned out for Brannstrom like a crisp sweep of the Zamboni. (Note: lefty Chabot did play some right-side D on Wednesday, just to get him out more and protect the young defence).

Traded at Monday’s deadline were lefty defencemen Mike Reilly (Boston Bruins) and Braydon Coburn (New York Islanders), to go with an earlier move that sent Christian Wolanin to the Los Angeles Kings for forward Mike Amadio.

For a guy who didn't play an NHL game between March 10 and April 8, there was Brannstrom playing 15:16 minutes in Monday’s 4-2 win over Winnipeg with an assist and plus-3 rating. Then on Wednesday in an elevated role, Brannstrom saw 18:14 TOI, including 2:48 on the power play and 3:04 on the penalty kill. Fans would have fallen off their couches seeing Brannstrom killing penalties earlier in the year or playing big minutes late in a game.

Smith was pleased at how Brannstrom held up. At times, he’s been known to take a pounding back there, but that didn’t happen in this 3-2 loss.

"He broke the puck out well for us, and with Zaitsev being out we were short penalty killers and I thought [Brannstrom] did a good job there," Smith said. "I thought he defended well. He passed the puck. He looks more confident for sure. And I think he’ll just continue to get better.

"That’s as big and physical a team as you’re going to play and he did really well. That’s a building block for him."

Suddenly, Brannstrom, 21, who has been a healthy scratch, a taxi squad passenger and even an AHL visitor, is vaulted into a top-four spot alongside the dependable Zub. If he can stay healthy, Brannstrom should get plenty of chances over the final 12 games to showcase his game.
A former first-round draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights (15th overall, 2015), Brannstrom was the key piece acquired by Ottawa in the Mark Stone trade two years ago.

His progress since then has been up and down. Yet, this week, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion reiterated, "We feel Erik Brannstrom is going to be a really good NHL defenceman."

Dorion said this by way of explaining why he was OK with letting Reilly go at the deadline for a third-round pick, despite the fact Reilly was having a strong season. Dorion looks to a future left side that includes franchise cornerstone Chabot and "superstar in waiting" (Dorion’s words) Jake Sanderson, who will return for a second season at UND in the fall.

Mete in the mix

The Senators did bring in another left-shot D in Victor Mete, claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens.

The arrival of Mete makes the Brannstrom angle all the more fascinating. For one thing, they are both so small they look like they could be partners on the same minor hockey team – possibly minor bantam. Brannstrom is generously listed as five-foot-10, 179 pound while Mete is five-nine, 184.

At similar height, and with similar styles, these two could hardly be distinguished in Ottawa’s retro red jerseys with the black numbers on the back Wednesday evening. Was that No. 26 Brannstrom or No. 98 Mete making that rush?

If anything, Mete, a fourth-round pick of the Canadiens in 2016, might have slightly quicker feet than Brannstrom. In his second Ottawa start, Mete played 14:53 without any special teams time. He looked comfortable for the most part and finished minus-1 while Brannstrom was even on Wednesday. Mete played 9:43 on Monday, after driving over from Montreal on gameday.

"He’ll play more," Smith says of Mete. "He will get a chance to get his confidence back after being in and out of the lineup in Montreal."

"He has an opportunity to prove he belongs in the league," Smith added. "And when he gets his confidence back, we think he can be a good player."

Whether or not there is room in the organization for two undersized, pretty-good defencemen who don’t put up big points is a question for down the road. There is room for at least one of them in a defence picture that projects to include: Chabot, Jake Sanderson, Bernard-Docker, Zub, Lassi Thomson and Tyler Kleven. For now, Zaitsev, 29, at $4.5 million through 2023-24, is very much a part of that picture, slotted in beside Chabot on the top pairing. When Zaitsev returns from his injury, look for Brown to get bumped from the lineup as JBD stays in.

Mete has been on a third pairing with Brown.

Mete, 22, is a pending RFA this summer while Brannstrom has one year left on his entry-level deal.

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