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Should I Stay Or Should I Go: Justin Braun

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Braun’s play in his first year as a Flyer received mixed reviews. Would what they’d miss out on by losing him be enough for them to pay a premium to bring him back?

New York Islanders v Philadelphia Flyers - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Flyers, like basically every competitive team in the NHL, are going to have to get creative this summer managing their roster as they work with a flat salary cap. Fortunately for them, most of their roster is already under contract going into next season, and there probably aren’t any franchise-changing decisions coming with any of the free agents they have to reach deals with. Still, there are some noteworthy contributors to the 2019-20 squad that will be hitting the market in a couple of weeks, and the Flyers are going to have to make decisions on them.

So, in the coming days we’ll be going through some of the Flyers’ most notable unrestricted free agents, looking at how they played and the roles they played, whether the Flyers have a replacement for them on hand, guessing how much they’ll cost to bring back, and trying to determine whether the Flyers should try to keep them around or let them walk to unrestricted free agency. We’ll start with possibly the biggest name among the Flyers’ UFAs, defenseman Justin Braun.

How’d he do for the Flyers this year?

Depends on who you ask and what you’re looking at. Braun’s lasting impression, at this point in time, is probably a subpar showing in the playoffs, in which he remained in the lineup every game despite being one of the team’s worst defensemen.

But on the whole in the 2019-20 Flyers season? Braun was pretty much what one would’ve expected Justin Braun would be. Braun was a defensively-oriented defenseman who slowed the play down and limited chances when he was out there, and was a stalwart on the much-improved penalty kill. Of the Flyers’ seven primary defensemen this season, Braun’s 2.14 Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (c/o Evolving Hockey) was a team-best mark, as was his 5.47 per 60 on the penalty kill among regular Flyers PKers.

Braun wasn’t leaned on quite as hard as some of the other players in the lineup (we’ll get to that in a second), but for a guy whose role was “don’t let anything bad happen,” he did a pretty good job of that in terms of underlying play. It’s a bit tough to tell that just by looking at his goal-based numbers; his on-ice goal differential at 5-on-5 was actually the worst of any Flyers defenseman. But the performance was there for Braun.

What kind of role did he play in?

Braun flipped between the second and third-pair right defenseman spots for the Flyers throughout the season, starting in the second pair and moving back and forth at times as Phil Myers started to emerge as a no-doubt full-time NHLer. He was a steady part of the team’s second-pair penalty kill — typically with Travis Sanheim — for basically the entire season.

He wasn’t consistently taking tough matchups — his on-ice deployment was pretty neutral (he had slightly more defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts), whenever Alain Vigneault and Mike Yeo could, they would lean on Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen to face the opponents’ best players. But as a defensive presence at the bottom of the lineup, Braun did his job.

Is he easy to replace? Do the Flyers have someone that can clearly do his job?

This is where things get tricky, and the answer depends on what exactly you think “his job” was.

If the Flyers made no NHL-level moves on defense this summer other than re-signing their restricted free agents and letting Braun walk, the plan for next season would presumably be to roll with a third pairing of Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg, with someone else —likely Mark Friedman — taking on the seventh-defenseman role. That seems like a lot of confidence to have in a third pair made up of a guy who’s had two straight bad seasons and a guy who the team has never really leaned on as more than a sixth defenseman. (They could, of course, change the pairings around so that those two are spread between the second and third pairs, but the point remains.)

Braun’s departure without any sort of external replacement would create two specific holes in the lineup. The first is on the penalty kill, where Braun was a mainstay — and a good one! — for the entire season. This is a spot where the Flyers figure to have a replacement readily available; it seems likely that one of Phil Myers and Robert Hagg can slide into that spot and have the coaches’ confidence, though my guess is they’d initially not be as good as Braun in the role.

The second question is a trickier one to answer: Braun leaving would make it tougher for the Flyers to balance the handedness of their defensive pairings, like they did this past season. It was fairly straightforward to keep a left/right balance on all three pairs last season when the Flyers had Braun, Myers, and Matt Niskanen to shuffle around. That becomes trickier if Braun isn’t around and the Flyers don’t replace him with another righty. Short of an external addition, the options there would be to pencil Friedman into the lineup, or forgo having three righties and hope that you catch a break somewhere else — namely, that either Gostisbehere can play on the right side or that someone comes out of nowhere in camp (Egor Zamula?) and shows that you need to keep him on this team, handedness be damned.

If they do try to replace Braun externally, there are some decent options out there — the pool of free-agent righty defensemen out there isn’t bad. Even if you assume the Flyers aren’t going to be pulling in someone like Alex Pietrangelo or Kevin Shattenkirk, there are some next-tier guys that could fit as a Braun replacement that likely aren’t going to command a ton of financial commitment. Surely, the Flyers will line up a few potential targets in that group. I’m partial to Dylan DeMelo, but there are others that would make sense. (What’s Radko Gudas up to nowadays?)

Now, if they strike out on those guys and Braun is still available, and their choices are to circle back to him or roll the dice on someone like Christian Folin again, you’re probably better off just biting the bullet and bringing back the guy you know can be decent.

So, in sum: the Flyers probably are not equipped to replace Braun as things currently stand. Letting him walk without some kind of replacement plan is risky — and that would be true in any offseason, let alone one that is almost certainly going to be very weird and leads into a season where team continuity may be more important than ever.

Can they afford to bring him back?

Probably, but it’ll be tight if they do. Courtesy of Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, the most likely contract length for Braun is a two-year deal, and at two years the expected cap hit for him would be $2.78 million per year. Their projections also say that a three-year deal would most likely come with an AAV of $3.66 million per year, and a one-year deal would come at a cost of $1.71 million.

Let’s focus on that two-year deal, since Braun probably isn’t settling for a one-year deal out of the gate and it would be malpractical for the Flyers to give Braun a contract that drags past the 2022 offseason given the moves they’re going to need to make then (namely, re-signing Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux). Two years at $2.78 million a pop. Right off the bat, the Flyers — who still need to re-sign Myers, Hagg, Nolan Patrick, a backup goalie, and fill two other lineup spots — would be committing about a third of their current cap space (around $8 million) to one guy.

At first glance, that seems like a tough sell for a guy who, if all goes well, is a fifth defenseman in the first year of the deal and a sixth defenseman in the second year (as someone like Zamula or Cam York finds his way into the NHL lineup). The only way you’re giving Braun that deal is if you’re confident in him slotting up in the lineup if necessary in the event of injury, which I think they are, but him at that deal would still require some gymnastics elsewhere.

If the Flyers can squeeze Braun into accepting a lower AAV than that, or talk him into a one-year deal, I think they pounce on it. But the initial asking price here feels a bit out of what their comfort zone should be.

What’s one lyric from The Clash’s 1981 hit ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go` that accurately describes his situation?

If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double

It’s a real gamble to let Braun walk, if you believe he was competent in his role last year and don’t think the Flyers have anyone — particularly any righties — that can fill his role to the same level. At the same time, committing multiple years and over $2 million per to a guy who, if all goes well, is your fifth or sixth defenseman seems like a decision the Flyers could come to regret when they’ve got to hand out more contracts next summer.

My guess is the Flyers are prepared to let Braun walk, and there will probably be some team willing to give him the multi-year deal he’s looking for. Teams like reliable veteran defensemen that have a right-handed shot, and Braun checks all of those boxes. At the above price for two years, I’d pass at first glance. But if the market for Braun isn’t really there and he circles back, willing to take a bit less than he initially was looking for, I’d be happy to see him with the team again next year.

Poll

Of these choices, what’s the biggest contract you’d be willing to give Justin Braun to return to the Flyers?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    3 years @ $3.66M AAV
    (5 votes)
  • 7%
    2 years @ 2.78M AAV
    (48 votes)
  • 37%
    1 year @ $1.71M AAV
    (231 votes)
  • 53%
    I wouldn’t give him any of those. Peace, J-Braun.
    (327 votes)
611 votes total Vote Now