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A Deeper Dive: Braun of a new day

Meltzer on how the acquisition of Justin Braun can help the Flyers allow fewer goals

by Bill Meltzer @NHLFlyers / philadelphiaflyers.com

Back on June 17, the Flyers announced that they had acquired veteran defenseman Justin Braun from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for the 41st overall pick (subsequently flipped to Vegas, who selected defenseman Kaedan Korczak) in the 2019 NHL Draft and a 2020 third-round pick. The 32-year-old Braun has one season remaining on his contract, carrying a $3.8 million average annual value. He can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. 

For quite a few years, Braun was a steady, minutes-eating defenseman for the Sharks, often paired with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. This past year, Braun played both with Vlasic and Brenden Dillon. 

The 2018-19 season was not among Braun's strongest seasons. However, he pulled down 20:18 of regular season ice time and 21:28 in the playoffs for a Sharks team that reached the Western Conference Final. For his career to date, he has dressed in 607 regular season games and 84 playoff games. 

"I always try to play defense first and then out. Good gap, break pucks out quick. Not afraid to going back for pucks and get there first. Take a hit every now and again. I think the boys in San Jose would laugh at me about that, going back and taking too many hits. You just got to do what you got to do to get the puck out. Last year was a bit of a down year offensively. I'm going to try and get that part back. Get some more shots through and create action on the net," Braun said.

The highest offensive output of Braun's NHL career came in 2017-18, when he chipped in five goals and 28 assists (both career highs) while dressing in 81 regular season games. He topped 20 points in two other campaigns. A graduate of UMass Amhert who turned pro in the spring of 2010, Braun spent his entire pro career in the Sharks organization prior to the recent trade to the Flyers.

Apart from reaching the Western Conference Final with the Sharks in 2019, Braun was a mainstay on the 2015-16 squad that reached the Stanley Cup Final. He has averaged north of 20 minutes of ice time per game in each of the last six seasons, and blocked 120 to 161 shots in every season during that time span.

Braun has been a regular penalty killer and workhorse minutes eater in each of his last six seasons. This past season, he absorbed a 58.9 percent of his 5-on-5 shift starts in the defense zone, and started 61.8 percent in the D-zone the previous year. Ideally, the right-handed blueliner needs to be paired with a puck-moving partner on the left to balance the pairing, but Braun has always been pretty reliable without the puck.

"He is very poised out there, and he takes on a lot of the hard minutes that let your skill guys do their thing. He's usually been consistent in his game, because he knows what works for him in his role. He did that for San Jose, and I'm confident that he'll do the same thing for us. Having veterans like Braun and [Matt] Niskanen will help us balance our pairs in terms of left-right, and they are also leaders who calm everyone down. You can see when there's panic on a bench. It's not really about what gets said, it's having guys who've been through the wars, know how to handle adversity and to win. The other players, especially the young guys, pick up on that," said new Flyers assistant coach Mike Yeo. 

Yeo, head coach Alain Vigneault, and general manager Chuck Fletcher have all said that they see Braun's role in Philadelphia being similar to the one he played for the Sharks. He is likely to be paired with one of the younger defensemen on the team -- possibly one of Travis Sanheim or Ivan Provorov, and he may also see time with Shayne Gostisbehere -- and will be called upon to be a steadying influence on them.  

However, Fletcher also made clear to Braun that his number one job will be to focus on his own role of helping the Flyers reduce their team goals against average.

"He said, 'I don't want you to be a mentor, I want you to be a player.' That's important. I'm there to play, not just take care of guys. But whatever I can teach them; what I learned from Jumbo [Joe Thornton], Pavs [Joe Pavelski], and Burnsie over the years, how to be a good pro and what you need to do to day in and day out. Hopefully I can show them a little bit of that, but they go good leadership there. They've got Giroux. He's been there forever and one of the best in the game. They got some good guys around, but [I'll do] anything I can try and help them do," Braun said.

Braun has never been an analytics darling, and had a rough year in his underlying puck possession stat disparities in 2018-19. One contributing factor: The Sharks featured right-handed blueliners Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns among its primary offensive-minded weapons this past season. On the right-handed Braun's pairing, his job was to focus on his shutdown duties and often absorbed defensive zone starts in dangerous matchups against high-skill lines.  

Through most of his career, Braun has produced good bottom-line results in conjunction with the rest of his team. Although the traditional plus-minus stat has largely fallen out of favor with the rise of measurements of shot attempt disparities, "expected goals" (i.e., high-danger scoring chances) and comparatives to teammates and opposing players in similar roles, a large percentage of contemporary NHL players still care about their plus-minus totals. 

Braun is among them. He was minus-14 in 2018-19, and it bothers him. It was his first negative season after five straight years of finishing on the positive side of the ledger. He was on the ice for 27 opposing power play goals. The Sharks goaltending duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell also did not have its best showing during the 2018-19 regular season. Both netminders finished with save percentages below 90 percent. However, Braun acknowledged that he did not meet some of his own expectations heading into last season.

"I pride myself being a plus at the end of the year. This was a frustrating year, giving up that many goals and not creating as many when you're out there. I would say it was a down year in that respect. You've just got to find what works and keep pushing forward. You can't dwell on that. But it was tough, taking a lot of dashes when you're a D-man. Kind of frustrating through the year. I've had good years where I've been plus pretty well. Just kind of lean back on those [experiences] and find that game again," Braun said.

Braun believes that the Flyers are poised for a breakthrough season, and said that the team has the capability of proving a lot of the doubters wrong. Even before his trade to Philadelphia, he felt that the Flyers were a team with good pieces being assembled. Now it's his job both to be a piece of the puzzle himself as well as what coaches call a "glue guy", who helps other pieces better hold together.

"It's a new challenge, and I'm looking forward to it. I know some of the [veteran] guys already, and there's a lot of young talent... You watch Carter Hart and he looks like the real deal. It'll be exciting to play in front of him. That's good stuff going forward," Braun said.

"Between Ghost and Provorov, those are the two I probably know the most. Played against them the last two years. They're dynamic. They create a lot. They're jumping in the play a lot. You got to have those guys out there pushing the pace. You're not going to get much offense if you're just taking 3-on-3 rushes. You got to get that 4th guy on the rush. Hopefully I can help with that. Those guys seem to be elite at it. Hopefully that can keep up going forward."

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