While Justin Braun does not make many highlight reels, his defensive play, along with that of regular partner Marc Edouard Vlasic, goes a long way in keeping high danger shots away from Martin Jones and devouring the most difficult minutes against the toughest competition. Braun’s role as a shut down defenseman only increased this year, as he spent more time in his own zone and more time on the penalty kill than in past seasons. He seems to be growing into his own as a strong defensive defenseman, and if that comes along with dips in offensive production and possession stats that rely upon shot metrics, that’s to be expected.
While points production is certainly not Braun’s strong suit, he has historically held his own on the offensive side of the ice. That production dipped this year, as Braun put up four goals and nine assists for 13 points, down from his 23 points the previous season, and the lowest per game total of his career. Considering Braun’s assignments and his purpose on the team, however, this isn’t particularly alarming. Braun was clearly relied upon as a defensive defenseman, played against relatively tough competition in the defensive end of the ice more often than not, so points may not tell the whole story.
Braun’s possession stats follow along with those of his most common defensive partner, Marc Edouard Vlasic. Looking at his rolling Corsi for percentage, it’s not hard to see the point in the season where Vlasic missed time (and played at a significantly decreased level upon returning) due to a facial fracture in January. This may be partially to blame for Braun’s possession numbers being a little worse than Vlasic’s as well; by most measures, Vlasic is the better player, and Braun is understandably worse without him on the ice.
Braun was given the lowest zone start ratio of any player on the Sharks this year, meaning he started more shifts in the defensive zone relative to anywhere else on the ice. This comes with the expected drop in shot attempts, and leads to a big red dot on the chart below. In fact, if we factor in special teams numbers instead of relying only on 5v5 data, Braun spent more time in the defensive zone than he ever has in his career (35.98 ZSR), as head coach Pete DeBoer relied upon Braun as a penalty killer more than in the past.
Compared to the rest of San Jose’s defensive corps, Braun’s usage was skewed the most defensively, he spent the most time shorthanded (got two assists out of it, too, the first of his career), and, not surprisingly, recorded the worst Corsi for percentage. Whether these are growing pains of a young-but-not-that-young defenseman being trusted in the toughest situations or a worrying trend remains to be seen.
2016-17 Sharks 5v5 Usage Chart (via Corsica Hockey)
Justin Braun Rolling 25-game score, zone, and venue-adjusted average CF% (via Corsica Hockey)
Player Hero Chart (via Own The Puck):
This is by no means a typical Justin Braun play, but typical Justin Braun plays do not make good highlights. Here, we see the occasional predatory Braun in his not-so-natural habitat, coasting into the offensive zone as the late man. He cleans up a backhand pass from Chris Tierney that was probably meant for Matt Nieto, and scoops a frantic backhand shot through a custom built Roman Polak screen to open the scoring in what would eventually be a 3-2 win in Toronto.
What comes next?
Braun is signed through 2020 at a pretty reasonable $3.8 million AAV. This puts him in a similar pay category as players like Alec Martinez in Los Angeles, Niklas Hjalmarsson in Chicago, and Anton Stralman in Tampa Bay. Braun’s contract compares favorably to some of those and not as favorably to others, but overall, he’s not breaking the bank yet. There is the distant possibility that Braun could be exposed in the expansion draft, he is eligible, but at this price point and with this term, I really don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation. Braun seems to be a part of San Jose’s core going forward, and he’s probably the third defenseman who is all but guaranteed to be protected. Hopefully, Braun can continue to develop in the direction he has been: developing as a more responsible and trustworthy player in the defensive zone and short handed, learning from his steady defensive partner, and continuing to be the draft-day-steal he was in 2007.