It is a good time to be a Swedish hockey fan.
With the Tre Kronor, excellence is expected as standard, but it is surely rare that a new generation has begun to shine before the previous one has even hit its stride.
The success of Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, to name but two, has meant that the hotbed of the skilled offensive defenseman is just as likely to be Sundsvall as Sudbury, Växjö as Vancouver, or Rögle as Regina.
Already, scouts are licking their lips at the possibilities presented by Rasmus Dahlin in the 2018 draft, but this 2017 draft is pretty special if you're a fan of smooth-skating Swedes who also happen to be prodigies, too.
We've already considered Timothy Liljegren, but here we consider a player who hasn't had quite the hype of his compatriot but may well prove to be the steal of the 2017 draft - HV71's Erik Brännström.
Erik Brännström - Flash Stats
HV71 U20 SuperElit - 61 Games - 17 Goals - 36 Assists - 53 Points - 46 PIM
HV71 SHL - 38 Games - 1 Goal - 5 Assists - 6 Points - 2 PIM
Worlds U18 - 17 Games - 7 Goals - 5 Assists - 12 Points - 39 PIM
Worlds U20 - 3 Games - 3 Assists - 3 Points - 2 PIM
Erik Brannstrom NHL Draft profile 2017 | SB Nation NHL Draft M...
Sweden's Erik Brannstrom might just slip into the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft after all.Posted by SB Nation NHL on Wednesday, June 14, 2017
The Swedish word for "young prodigy" is "underbarn", but it might as well be "Brännström". The 5'10, 187lb blueliner from Eksjö, a small town of under 10,000 people near Jönköping (home of the SEL team HV71) in Southern Sweden is already playing as a regular in the Swedish Elite League at the age of 17, after tearing up the junior leagues early this season. He's one of the youngest players in the 2017 draft, barely making it in under the wire for this year, but you wouldn't know it when you watch him play.
The key thing with Brännström, like Liljegren, is his skating. This is a two-way defenceman who can move from end to end like a ghost, is positionally sound in both zones, and is very rarely caught out of position. Whilst his style of play is perhaps not the headline-grabbing, highlight-reel maker of his compatriot and draft rival, it is arguably on the same level.
Watch, for example, his calmness and sheer speed as he utterly destroys other players of his age group in a U20 game early this season:
Or, if you prefer, there's his ability to keep a dying play alive and make an incredible cross-ice pass with no margin for error (he's at the top of the screen here):
To process what you're seeing, you need to know what Brännström is doing. He's pulling in a puck that's been played hard around the boards and is skittering unpredictably at full stretch while leaning away from the puck and trying to avoid hitting the boards. Not only that, but he's also aware enough of the play to know where he is, where his defensive partner is, and to make an instant no-look pass right across the ice bang-on to the stick, over the stick of a defending winger. NHL players practice for years and struggle to do that, and he's 17.
This, for slightly more of an in-depth look, is Brännström vs Canada this April (he's wearing 4 in this game):
Particularly of note here is the very first clip. It may seem relatively innocuous, as it's a simple settle-down-and-breakout, but the spin away from the forechecking Canadian forward is NHL-class, and the patience displayed waiting for his team-mates to set themselves up is the mark of a player high on both confidence and very calm under pressure. Whilst there's often the knock on Liljegren that he'll make dangerous, flashy plays that can go wrong, so far, this seems something that Brännström is much happier not doing.
Later in the clip, note his awareness and ability to make a play. Brännström is always seeing a pass open but never seems rushed. Aagain, the patience displayed implies that he's more of a measured, playmaking defenseman than Liljegren's all-action style, taking the time to consider his best move rather than bombing forward at every opportunity.
Then, of course, there's the toe-drag as the second highlight in the clip, because everyone loves a defender who's willing to activate his skills at every opportunity.
Given all this, why isn't Brännström receiving the same hype as Liljegren at the start of the year, and why isn't he rising now at a meteoric rate?
At 5'10 and 187lbs, there are many NHL scouts who will be a little unsure about whether or not Brännström will be able to keep up his level quite as well as the two-inch-taller and heavier Liljegren. For some unknown reason, NHL scouts still have a blind spot when it comes to smaller, skilled players, and so do some GMs.
There's also the fact that Brännström is a long-term project. Expect to see him make his NHL debut in the 2018-19 season or even in 2019-20 after more seasoning in Sweden. Small, playing on the blueline, and with time to wait means that many teams at the top end of the draft will look for players they think can make a more immediate impact.
That blind spot is key to making Brännström one of the potential steals of the first round. Ranked in the top 10 European skaters he may be, but the Swede is going to fall to the mid/lower first round, right into "second Coyotes pick" territory. Whether he'll fall all the way to 23 is unsure, but as a player with huge offensive upside and the potential ability to become a game-breaker, Brännström would be going far, far higher if he was a little bigger. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that were he 6 foot plus and 10 lbs heavier, he'd be a consensus top-ten pick. That's how good he is.
As it stands, though, the NHL's traditionalist blind-spot is going to be to the huge benefit of a team at the lower end of the first, who are going to get a potentially elite defenseman in a part of the first round beyond the "sure things".
Erik Brännström is going to make a team in the lower part of the first round very, very happy indeed this June - it's just a question of who. He is, without a doubt, a hidden gem waiting to be found by someone brave enough to look.