June 18, 2019
Chuck Fletcher clearly has a plan. How that plan will ultimately manifest itself remains to be seen, with the Flyers holding the 11th-overall pick in this weekend's NHL Entry Draft and a bevy of options when free agency opens on July 1. But the Flyers general manager is shaking up his team's blue-line with his third move in the last few days.
First, the Flyers traded Radko Gudas, their best defenseman from a year ago, to the Capitals last week for Matt Niskanen. They followed that move up with their decision to waive (and then buy out) Andrew MacDonald over the weekend. And on Tuesday, Fletcher made another defensive move, acquiring Justin Braun from the Sharks in exchange for a second-round pick on Saturday and a third-round pick in the 2020 draft.
"We are excited to add Justin to our group of defensemen," said Fletcher. "He is a high character, quality defender who will bring a steadying presence to our team."
For Braun, who is entering his 10th NHL season and had spent his entire career in San Jose, the deal sending him to the Flyers caught him a little off guard.
"A little surprised [to be traded] — I’ve been with the Sharks for a long time," Braun said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. "It’s the first time getting traded. A little shocking. Had to make some phone calls to the wife. Kind of get that and everything in order. At the same time, it’s exciting, something new, something different. This is a fun team, playing them and watching them over the years. It will be exciting to jump into that group.
In 607 regular season games, Braun, 32, has recorded 154 points (24 goals, 130 assists) and has a career plus-minus of +24. Last season, Braun had 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) in 78 games for the Sharks. He was also a minus-14 for the season, ending a streak of five straight seasons in positive numbers.
"I pride myself being a plus at the end of the year," Braun said. "That 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 just got to find what works and keep pushing forward. You can’t dwell on that. 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 and find that game again."
Here's a look at his career stats in the regular season:
So what does Braun think he can bring to the Flyers?
"I always try to play defense first and then out," he said when asked to describe his style of play. "Goof gap, break pucks out quick. Not afraid of 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 back. Get some more shots through and create action on the net."
As you can see above, Braun has been incredibly durable recently, playing at least 78 games in five of the last six seasons for the Sharks.
"Justin has been an important part of our organization since we drafted him in 2007 and over that time, we have seen him develop not only as a player on the ice but as a man,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said, via a team press release. “He has played a large role in our team's success since joining the Sharks roster, including appearing in three Conference Finals and competing for the Stanley Cup in 2016..."
In addition to those regular-season numbers, Braun has played in 84 postseason games for the Sharks, including 20 last season alone during San Jose's run to the Western Conference Final, and has made the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons with the organization. Furthermore, Braun, a former seventh-round pick back in 2007, appeared in all 24 postseason games for the Sharks during their run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.
He, like Niskanen, brings tons of experience to a Flyers defense that is crawling with young talent. (The two, interestingly enough, also share an agent.) But according to Braun, Fletcher doesn't just want him playing the role of mentor — although that will certainly be a part of it.
"[Fletcher] said I don’t want you to be a mentor, I want you to be a player. That’s important," said Braun. "I’m there to play, not just take care of guys. Whatever I can teach them. What I learned from Jumbo [Joe Thornton], Pavs [Joe Pavelski], and Burnzie [Brent Burns] 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 [is] one of the best in the game. They got some good guys around, but anything I can try and help them do."
Braun is arguably only a rental, given that he is entering the final year of a five-year, $19 million deal (with a cap hit of $3.8 million). And that makes the cost of acquiring him questionable, especially since the Flyers' defensive corps, while young, is quite crowded — and they may soon need room for prospects ready to become NHL regulars.
But Braun, who praised Carter Hart as "the real deal" during his conference call and also spoke about his friendship with James van Riemsdyk, is excited to play with the Flyers young blue-liners.
"Yeah, between Ghost and Provorov — those are the two I probably know the most," he said when asked about the team's up-and-coming defense. "I 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."
The question now becomes where does Braun fit in the Flyers defensive rotation? Could there be another trade in the works, perhaps involving Shayne Gostisbehere, who has had trade rumors hanging over his head for some time now? Is Fletcher worried about losing one of his restricted free agents, like Ivan Provorov or Travis Sanheim? Could there be more moves in the works — and if so, how do these recent moves fit in?
That's the part of Fletcher's plan that has yet to reveal itself. But with NHL free agency opening in less than two weeks, we're about to find out.
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