2018-19 Season Review: Justin Braun’s offensive struggles continued into his twilight
Doug Wilson did well to acquire assets for the aging defenseman.
It would be unfair to write Justin Braun off completely, as I’ve made the mistake of doing in the past. During the last few years of his career, Braun has been a skilled defender, consistently limiting shots and chances against. The 2018-19 season was no different.
The #sjsharks trade Justin Braun to the #LetsGoFlyers for a 2nd-round pick this year (41st overall) and a 2020 3rd-round pick. Braun is a good defender who frustrates opponents by winning puck battles and being tough on his blueline pic.twitter.com/QNBEEyZR0i— The Point (@ThePointHockey) June 18, 2019
Braun’s excellent skating, solid positioning, and stickwork allowed him, as The Point points out, to frustrate opposing forwards. The Point’s statistics are powered by SPORTLOGiQ, a company that uses software to analyze broadcast tape of NHL players. SPORTLOGiQ’s use of video helps show us what goes on between the shot attempts. The software’s understanding of spacing and puck battles illuminates what Braun did so well during his time in teal.
For all his hard work, Braun exemplified the cliché we hear used to describe defensive defensemen. “If you don’t notice him, he’s probably having a good game.” If Braun’s defensive abilities were often undersold, it is likely because his on-ice shot metrics reflected what observers so often seemed to see: the back stuck in his own zone. What Braun was able to accomplish at his own blueline was often negated by his inability to move the puck up ice after separating it from his man.
If anything has plagued Braun — and continued to plague him this past season — it’s that he has not been able to contribute positively to the Sharks’ transition game. The sample size of games tracked in 2018-19 is a bit too small to consider stable, but we can see a pattern continuing. No doubt, Braun played exceptionally difficult minutes for head coach Pete DeBoer, making in-zone passing a luxury. But, if you think you recall watching high-and-off-the-glass exit attempts on a loop, you’re not alone.
Braun was ever helpful in taking difficult matchups and zone starts away from the team’s more gifted offensive blueliners. In an era where everyone on the ice needs to be mobile and wary with the puck, Braun did not offer all the skills the modern NHL requires.
No matter how many times Braun skated alongside his mark, keeping the puck to the outside, and no matter how often he made his zone a difficult one to enter, he seemed helpless to send the tide of play back in the other direction. So poor was Braun’s ability to generate offense that on the balance his sound defensive impact was nullified by his ineptitude at the opposing blueline.
On tape, the eye test told us that he was unsure of how to take the puck and do something useful with it offensively. The eye test suggested his impulse was to rid himself of the puck without first seeing what more could be made of it.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
During the last six seasons of his career, Braun received top-four defense minutes. During the DeBoer era, Braun’s even-strength ice time per game has ranked fourth, second, second and third, so he’s been the team’s second or third defenseman in the eyes of the current coaching staff. Four years ago that may have been excusable, but playing someone without puck-moving ability as often as they did recently feels like it was misuse.
Braun’s career arc shows he was never a back who racked up points, but his value was in his ability to impact shot and scoring chance differential. He performed well in those two categories during the first half of his career but faltered down his proverbial home stretch. Despite scoring at the best rate of his career last season, the numbers belie how he actually impacted the game.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
We discussed Braun’s inability to produce offense earlier. Above you can see that impact (or lack thereof) in visual form. Those deep red bars show that last season Braun had a very poor impact on the Sharks’ ability to score goals, take shots offensively and create scoring chances. On the other side of the chart we can see that Braun’s defensive capabilities are still his strong suit, though they weren’t nearly enough to make up for his poor play on the other side of the ice.
An archetypal defensive defender, Braun found his calling alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic as one of the league’s premier shutdown units. As the game changed and Braun aged, his lack of transition skill and offensive awareness ultimately led to his falling out of favor in San Jose.
Braun with the steal and the slapper! pic.twitter.com/mRr2ZqZ6AR— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) December 3, 2018
If there was anything Braun was known for, it was his ability to close down on forwards and deny entries into the Sharks zone. Here, he reads Montreal’s break out and, supported by his teammates, is able to intercept the outlet pass. Once in the offensive zone, Braun unleashes a rare slapshot to beat Carey Price. The play was certainly out of the realm of usual for the stay-at-home guy, but if we are bidding adieu to a longtime Shark, then we will do so by celebrating something worth cheering.
What comes next?
Ahead of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Doug Wilson traded Justin Braun for a second-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2020. The Sharks used the second-round pick to trade back, select Artemi Knyazev and, eventually, trade back up to select Dillon Hamaliuk. In a way, you could say that the trade was actually Braun for Knyazev and half of Hamaliuk.
The trade cleared Braun’s $3.8 million cap hit off the Sharks’ books and paved the way for Tim Heed and potentially younger members of the organization to earn more ice time this season and in the future. I guess, really, you could say that the trade was Justin Braun for Knyazev, half of Hamaliuk, and 63 percent of the cap space for Timo Meier’s extension. Not a bad piece of business, all in all.
Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Braun was traded for a fourth-round pick in 2020. It has been updated to reflect the fact the pick is a third-round selection in 2020.