Now that we are just weeks away from the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and the opening of free agency, the rumors are flying. One thing that we didn’t expect but we keep hearing about? Ken Holland’s desire to change up the defense. Among the possibilities is adding a top defenseman like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or subtracting a top-four defenseman like Adam Larsson for help elsewhere in the lineup.
If the Oilers were to trade Larsson, they would need to find an NHL caliber player to replace him in the top-four on their right defense. Ethan Bear will certainly fill one of the two spots, but Evan Bouchard is probably a season away from filling the other. If Larsson goes, someone needs to come in.
Another veteran shutdown defenseman could be an option. Perhaps veteran Justin Braun is that guy.
Why Is He Out There?
Braun was acquired by the Philadelphia Flyers from the San Jose Sharks on June 18th, 2019 in exchange for a second-round pick in 2019 (41st overall) and a third-round pick in 2020.
Braun was brought in by the Flyers to help stabilize their defense and provide leadership. Mission accomplished, as the Flyers finished second in the Metropolitan Division prior to the COVID-19 pause, then won the number one seed in the round-robin. The Flyers also would win their first playoff series since 2012, defeating the Montreal Canadiens in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Braun is a pending free agent, however, and may not fit moving forward. The Flyers have Ivan Provorov, Matt Niskanen, Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere under contract for the 2020-21 season. In addition, RFA’s Robert Hagg and Philippe Myers are also likely to return, giving the Flyers six NHL defenseman before Braun is even considered.
What Does He Do Well?:
Braun is a solid all-around defenseman that can play a shutdown role and has a history of playing top-four minutes at the NHL level. He averaged 20:18 time-on-ice per game during the 2018-19 season while helping the San Jose Sharks reach the Western Conference Final. This past season, he averaged 17:16 per game with the Flyers. He was a -2 for the Flyers, starting 48.3% of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Braun did display a little offensive pop this past season. Throughout his career, Braun has been a consistent offensive producer. He scored 33 points in 2017-18 (5 g, 28 a), and has been right around 20 points per season since then. In 62 games a year ago, Braun scored 19 points (3 g, 16 a).
Possession wise, Braun posted a Corsi For of 50.3% (-1.6 Rel) and a Fenwick For of 49.7% (-2.1). Possession, at least during his time with the Sharks, was not a strength of Braun’s game. His Corsi Rel was routinely in the negative while with the Sharks, culminating in a -6.9 Rel during his final season in California.
His numbers improved in Philadelphia. It’s possible that a decrease in minutes, 3:02 less year over year, contributed to the improved numbers.
(All stats via hockey-reference)
Here is a look at Braun’s scouting report via The Sports Forecaster.
Has very good size (6-2, 205 pounds) for the blueline position, as well as solid all-round acumen. Shoots the puck well from the point. Can log a lot of minutes. Is a solid shutdown D-man. Does not always utilize his 6-2 frame to the best of his abilities, since he is not quite physical enough. Also, he does not shoot the puck nearly enough for someone with a big shot.
Where Should He Play / Where Will He Play?:
Braun was a top-four defenseman for some really good San Jose Sharks teams for a long time. On the face of it, any team that signs him is probably expecting him to fill that role. The Flyers used him in more of a third-pairing role in 2019-20, and got good results. Perhaps, at age 33, Braun is more depth defenseman than feature piece now. The evidence suggests that is the case.
If the Oilers were to sign him, it almost certainly means Larsson was traded. That almost certainly means he’ll be playing a top-four role in Edmonton.
What Will He Cost?:
Braun last signed a contract on September 20th, 2014. His five-year extension kicked in for the 2015-16 season, and paid him $3,800,000 per year. With his role decreasing and age now a factor, Braun will be looking more short term next month.
I could see the veteran commanding a two or three year contract with an AAV somewhere in the $2,5000,000 range.
Holland could go a few different ways this offseason. He could elect to move a younger defenseman, like a Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom, and find an upgrade on defense. He could also simply move out a player like Larsson and replace him with a free agent.
Braun is likely to be a little too expensive, and earn too much term, for the role that he plays. He’s a veteran bridge defender at this stage of his career. He could replace Larsson in a pinch and serve as a placeholder until Evan Bouchard is ready.
If Braun is willing to accept a one-year deal, perhaps even two, he could be a fit for the Oilers if other dominoes fall.