Updated December 10, 2018 - 3:49 pm
ROSEMONT, Ill. — Rocky Thompson first noticed it during the Vegas Rookie Faceoff in September, but didn’t say anything at the time. Maybe the kid needs to learn the hard way, he thought.
“He was very vocal to the referees,” Thompson said, “and if you’re vocal to the ref as a 19-year-old, it’s funny how they’ll teach you a lesson.”
Erik Brannstrom continued his penchant for chirping at officials when he arrived with the Golden Knights’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Finally, Thompson put a stop to it during a game in October.
“I went over, I said, ‘You’re never going to talk to a referee again the entire season,’ ” recalled Thompson, the coach of the Chicago Wolves. “And he just said, ‘OK.’
“And he’s been good ever since. That speaks to him more than anything else that he’s a great listener.”
Brannstrom, the No. 15 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has adapted quickly to North America in his first professional season.
The Swedish-born defenseman found a new favorite sushi restaurant nearby and spends much of his free time at the mall with his girlfriend, who recently arrived from their home country.
But Brannstrom still has a few subtle things to learn before he’s ready to graduate to the NHL.
“I know the story Rocky’s talking about because I was standing right beside him when it happened,” said Griffin Reinhart, Brannstrom’s partner on defense with the Wolves. “I think that shows how much he cares. You don’t want a guy that isn’t fired up about anything. You always want to be pushing the boundaries.”
Brannstrom’s passion has endeared him to older teammates with the Wolves — “He’s definitely got a fire in his belly when he’s playing,” Wolves forward Brooks Macek said — but it’s his offensive skill that has attracted most of the attention.
He leads all AHL rookie defensemen with 16 assists and 20 points in 23 games and runs the Wolves’ No. 1 power-play unit.
He’s made a smooth transition to the smaller North American ice, which is 200 feet by 85 feet as opposed to 200-by-100 in Europe.
“I’m comfortable out there,” Brannstrom said. “I haven’t played so many games in a small rink before, but it fits me better, I think. I can go faster, and I don’t need to think so much and do it all on instinct all the time. That’s when you play the best hockey.”
Brannstrom is riding a five-game point streak (one goal, six assists), the second time he’s put together a streak that long. He’s scored at least one point in 16 of his 23 appearances.
Defensively, the 5-foot-10-inch, 173-pound Brannstrom remains a work in progress, however.
In his past 12 games, he has a minus-9 rating and is working to eliminate the types of aggressive mistakes he made during preseason with the Knights.
“What Branny has is a great foundation as an offensive player. Even at the next level, that’s going to translate very quickly, in my opinion,” Thompson said. “But what he didn’t have coming in was a foundation of play without the puck defensively, and that was kind of exposed in training camp, giving up a lot of odd-man rushes, not reading those situations, losing body position in his 1-on-1.
“So what we’ve really focused on is his play without the puck and his foundation and fundamentals as far as stick and body positioning.”
Brannstrom is eligible to appear in nine NHL games without burning the first year on his entry-level contract.
The Knights have eight healthy defensemen after the return of Nate Schmidt from his 20-game suspension last month, and assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon said a call-up for Brannstrom is “not on the horizon.”
Brannstrom is slated to play for Sweden in the World Junior Championship from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, then return to the AHL.
“Playing professional hockey, the physical challenge, the challenge of the schedule, all those things are adjustments,” McCrimmon said. “Play without the puck is something any young pro has to get used to. Style of play. … I think all of those have provided great experience for Erik in his development, and that’s what he needs. That’s why he’s there. Those are exactly the things we expect.
“We’re very encouraged. That’s not to suggest we’re disappointed because there’s not a call-up pending. This is exactly what we expected. We’ll continue to monitor his play there.”
Brannstrom made an impression with his effort in workouts as a “Black Ace” during the Knights’ playoff run, and his drive is evident during practice with the Wolves.
When Thompson blows his whistle to gather players so he can explain the next drill, Brannstrom always takes a few extra seconds to play with the puck.
“Trying to get better every day. You need to do something about it,” Brannstrom said. “It’s a good opportunity to dangle a little bit.”
Brannstrom has stayed patient despite his early success in the minors, knowing he remains in the early stages of his development.
Of the nine defensemen selected in the first round in 2017, four — Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen (No. 3 overall), Calgary’s Juuso Valimaki (No. 16), Boston’s Urho Vaakanainen (No. 18) and Chicago’s Henri Jokiharju (No. 29 overall) — have reached the NHL.
“I think there’s a lot of expectations on you, and I think that you’re going to go through some low points and high points,” said Reinhart, himself a former No. 4 overall pick. “He’s handled it well and he’s a good enough player that he’s going to get through that. He’s just got to believe in himself.”
Erik Brannstrom file
Hometown: Eksjo, Sweden
Weight: 173 lbs.
Drafted: First round, 2017 (No. 15 overall)