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Senators’ Brannstrom looking to exemplify potential of team’s blue line

Without a doubt, the Ottawa Senators have a bright future on their blue line.

The question: When does that ‘future’ begin?

Like everything else in 2020 and 2021, the makeup of the Senators roster is laden with variables, including what support leagues will be up and operating throughout the winter and spring of an ongoing pandemic. Specifically — what options will there be for players who don’t stick with the NHL club?

With a target date of Jan. 13 for the NHL’s new season, most NHL camps would start in early January. Ottawa’s training camp could slot in around Dec. 28 (teams that did not qualify for the play-in or playoff rounds of last summer may get a head start of five or six days).

To limit travel and especially, border crossings, the seven Canadian teams are expected to play in a single division.

Yet, the American Hockey League won’t start play until at least Feb. 5, according to their latest plan. That means managers of NHL clubs have to sort out options for players that don’t crack the starting NHL lineup. Teams will likely have expanded rosters, for health and safety reasons.

Some prospects may end up staying in Europe for the season. Others may stick around the big league clubs until the AHL gets going, if it does.

Luckily for Ottawa, its AHL affiliate is in the same province as the NHL team, making travel and border crossing a non-issue for players called up or sent down. Still, teams will be wary of any extraneous movement or player mixing that could risk a spread of COVID-19, before a vaccine is widely available.

Finally, fans and media can begin talking hockey again, and particular topics.

Here’s one: How good can the Senators’ defensive corps be? Not just this season but in a few years’ time?

At a glance, it is a work in progress but the makings of a championship-contending group, once all the pieces are in place. That will take some time, considering some of Ottawa’s top defensive-prospects are still in their teens.

In the past three drafts, general manager Pierre Dorion and his scouting staff have made a point of using high draft picks to rebuild their blue line, following the departures of Erik Karlsson and other veterans over the past few seasons. The Senators also acquired a former first round defenceman in Erik Brannstrom, as a key part of the trade that sent forward Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights in February of 2019.

Four defencemen drafted in Round 1

Since 2015, Ottawa has selected four defencemen in the first round of the NHL draft:

Thomas Chabot (18th overall, 2015), Jacob Bernard-Docker (26th overall, 2018), Lassi Thomson (19th overall, 2019) and Jake Sanderson (5th overall, 2020).

In addition, the Senators used one of their second-round picks, 44th overall, to select Tyler Kleven, a big, physical presence who joins Bernard-Docker and Sanderson on the University of North Dakota blue line. When COVID-19 hit team USA’s world junior camp this week, Kleven joined Sanderson at the Americans’ WJC selection camp.

In three or four years, when the Senators rebuilding efforts of 2019 and 2020 should bear fruit, it’s fun to imagine a blue line that could have: Chabot, Sanderson, Brannstrom, Bernard-Docker, Kleven and Thomson. Subject to their development, of course.

In the meantime, Dorion spent part of his busy off-season plugging holes on the blue line, left by the departures of veterans Mark Borowiecki and Ron Hainsey. Specifically, he added two big, right-shot defencemen in Josh Brown and Erik Gudbranson, players who both started their NHL careers with Florida. Brown has ties to Senators head coach D.J. Smith, having played for Smith in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals.

Brannstrom gets running start

Where Brannstrom fits in on Ottawa’s blue line picture will be one of many intriguing training camp angles. Can he crack the starting lineup, or at least be part of a group of seven defencemen (or taxi squad) to start the season?

Brannstrom does have the advantage of a running start, compared with a group that for the most part has not played a game since March (Brown took part in Florida’s play-in series loss to the New York Islanders). This fall, Brannstrom has been playing and playing well, for the Langnau (SCL) Tigers of the Swiss-A League, with two goals and six assists in ten games played. The league has had some stops and starts due to the pandemic.

When he reports to Ottawa’s camp, Brannstrom will have some game action under his belt and could push for a top-six position, but with six defencemen on NHL contracts, Brannstrom is on his entry-level deal, it’s easier to see him as an extra defenceman until the Belleville Senators start up. Brannstrom is still just 21. Another year in the minors — assuming there will be an AHL season — wouldn’t hurt his development, so long as players remain healthy.

Chabot anchors 2021 blueline

At the moment, the starting six look like this: Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Brown, Gudbranson, Christian Wolanin and Mike Reilly.

Brannstrom, Artem Zub (from the KHL), Max Lajoie and Christian Jaros will provide depth or slide in as needed.

Dorion made two additions in early October that he hopes will make his team harder to play against. Dorion told Postmedia this week that Brown is “getting to a point with the experience he has in the NHL where he’ll be an effective shutdown defenceman.” Brown played just a little over 13 minutes per game with the Panthers.

The Senators picked up Brown from Florida on Oct. 5 for a fourth-round pick in the 2020 draft. They then signed the 25-year-old pending RFA to a two-year deal with an AAV of $1.2 million US.

Three days later, Dorion traded for Gudbranson, 28, who grew up playing minor hockey in Gloucester and was drafted by the Panthers third overall in 2010. Ottawa is Gudbranson’s fifth NHL team and he will be motivated to earn a new contract when his $4 million deal expires next summer. At 6-5, 217 pounds, Gudbranson will help replace Borowiecki’s grit.

“He’s a reliable veteran who plays an intimidating style of game and someone who will add a combination of grit, energy and, most importantly, leadership to our lineup,” Dorion said, when he acquired from Anaheim for a fifth-round pick.

Chabot, who signed an eight-year, $64-million US contract a little more than one year ago, will again be on the ice for nearly half the game. Zaitsev, who played for Smith in Toronto with the Maple Leafs, will also see big minutes.

Reilly saw his ice time jump six minutes to nearly 20 per game with Ottawa after coming over from Montreal midway through last season. Interestingly, Gudbranson played 20 minutes a night for the Ducks in 44 games, an increased role compared to his time in Pittsburgh. Wolanin, 25, has played just 43 career NHL games, but put up 12 points in 30 games in 2018-19 before a torn labrum in his shoulder set him back last season.

Aside from Chabot and possibly Brannstrom and Wolanin, the group as a whole has the look of an interim unit until the prospect wave arrives.

That will take a while and patience will be required. The Senators won’t contend until Sanderson and co. are here and thriving.

LeBlanc named alternate governor

The Senators president of business operations, Anthony LeBlanc, has had his contract extended and been promoted to alternate governor of the franchise. Leblanc, an Ottawa native and former Arizona Coyotes executive, was hired by the Senators in April and has been busy behind the scenes — relaunching the Senators Foundation charity among other initiatives.

The hockey club also made official the hiring of Tom Hoof, VP of marketing, Jeff Morander, executive VP of ticket sales and service and Gregg Olson, chief financial officer.

It was Hoof who worked with LeBlanc to secure a contract with Sony this past summer, in order to have Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek call out Ottawa’s first draft pick, third overall selection Tim Stuetzle, at the 2020 draft on Oct. 6. One month later, Trebek succumbed to cancer at age 80.

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