Monday, July 2, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Just as Erik Brannstrom dekes around one defender, another is already there eager to crush him against the boards. Brannstrom swiftly eludes him as well, drags the puck around a third helpless defender with the toe of his stick blade and fires a laser of a shot past the goalie’s blocker glove and into the top corner of the net.
Brannstrom’s skill with the puck was unmatched during the Golden Knights’ development camp last week at City National Arena. It’s important to note that the Swede is a defenseman — and only 18 years old.
While much of the attention has focused on the Golden Knights' free agent acquisitions, Brannstrom could be a star for this team for years to come.
“He’s a special player,” Golden Knights’ assistant director of player personnel Bob Lowes said. “Erik plays a special game for a smaller defenseman. He really shortens the ice and is very confident with and without the puck.”
Drafted by Vegas with the No. 15 pick in the first round of the 2017 draft, Brannstrom’s play is oozing with confidence. When he holds the puck you can see his eyes darting back and forth, looking for the big pass to set up a scoring chance.
If no such pass presents itself, Brannstrom is comfortable taking the puck himself and using his unusually proficient stickhandling to get around defenders.
“He’s a dynamic player for sure,” Golden Knights defensive coach Ryan McGill said. “He’s got real quick feet. He’s one of those guys where in every zone he sees the play develop and he’s a quick thinker. He moves the puck up quickly.”
The only thing quicker than Brannstrom’s blazing speed is his mind.
“I think when you have the ability to get pucks quick, and turn and find your man quickly, obviously that’s a strength that he has and it’s a strength that any team wants,” McGill said. “He sees the ice well coming out, and then he has the ability to get the puck going the other way but also join the attack and find the seams coming through the offensive zone. He thinks the game real quick and that’s an attribute to have.”
“I don’t think out there, I just do whatever comes up in my mind,” Brannstrom said. “I try to do whatever feels right.”
Unlike most prospects, Brannstrom didn’t spend the last year playing major junior hockey. Instead, the 18-year-old played in the highest professional league in Sweden competing against adults.
“It was tremendous (for his development),” McGill said. “Anytime you can play with people older than you, better than you, you’re only going to get better, as long as you don’t take any steps back with your confidence level. I think you’ve seen that so far with him.”
Brannstrom had only two goals and 13 assists in 44 games with HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League this season, but held his own as a teenager in a league full of grown men. When his team’s season ended, he played in Swedish junior hockey for the playoffs and dominated.
“He is a competitive player,” Lowes said. “A lot of times if those guys play with men all the time they’re not that enthused to go back down (to juniors) and Erik just went and wanted to win. It was real interesting to see how dominant he was with his own age group.”
Brannstrom had three goals and two assists in only five games to lead his under-20 team to a league championship. After months off, Brannstrom picked up right where he left off at Golden Knights’ development camp.
“With his skating ability and the way he handles the puck it takes a little pressure off myself because obviously he’s one of those players that can get into the good areas,” said rookie center Cody Glass, who was Brannstrom’s teammate during scrimmages. “He’s opportunistic and him just being out there you have a good chance of scoring. It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”
Brannstrom’s defensive game isn’t as flashy as he is on the offensive end, but the coaches were complimentary of that aspect as well.
“His defensive game, if you look at the nuances, are very, very good,” Lowes said. “It allows him to be very good in transition.”
General manager George McPhee said it would be a longshot for any of the rookies to push for a roster spot with the Golden Knights this season. If someone will, Brannstrom is as good a candidate as any.
If he doesn’t make the cut, he could also play in the American Hockey League with the Golden Knights’ affiliate Chicago Wolves. It would allow him to acclimate to the North American style of hockey while still playing in a league with no age restrictions.
Another option is playing in Canadian junior hockey, which is what other prospects like Glass, Nick Suzuki and Nick Hague are expected to do. Brannstrom was selected by the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Canadian Hockey League import draft this week.
That isn’t currently on his mind.
“Obviously my goal is to play for the Vegas Golden Knights next season,” Brannstrom said when asked about playing in Canadian junior hockey.
Another benefit of Brannstrom playing with the Chicago Wolves is he would be eligible to move up to the NHL at any point during the season. If he goes back to Sweden, or to Canadian Juniors he will be stuck there until their season concludes.
McPhee has stressed he doesn’t like to rush his prospects to the pros, and defenseman is one of the most difficult positions to learn.
“They are the last line of defense along with the goalie so they have to defend well and they have to read what is coming at them,” McGill said. “Once they figure out how to turn the puck over, they have to read what’s going the other way, so there are a lot of things going on in a short amount of time and they have to make great decisions.”
Brannstrom’s speed and vision are perfect for the Golden Knights’ scheme and style of play. The other issue with making the jump to the NHL is his size. At only 5-foot-10, 180-pounds he is undersized.
Nevertheless, the coaches praise his strength and don’t believe it is an issue.
“He’s very solid and strong on his feet,” McGill said. “He doesn’t get knocked around, and every day that he plays with older guys he’s going to get better and understand his limitations physically.
“I think confidence with him is because he has that strong frame and he’s not afraid to get in the corners with guys because he’s strong. With young players the confidence does come with strength.”
Brannstrom’s limitless confidence in himself, especially when he’s holding the puck, could get him into some trouble at the NHL level. Like any offensive-minded defenseman, he will have his growing pains, but he gives the Golden Knights a weapon at the blueline with elite potential.
Whether that is this year or down the road will depend on his performance in training camp this fall.
“His play will determine that,” Lowes said. “I think he’ll be given every opportunity to play with the Golden Knights.”