New system. New teammates. New defensive partners.
That summarizes Justin Braun’s situation when he was dealt to the Flyers after spending nine years in San Jose.
It also helps explain his early-season struggles as he tried to get acclimated to his surroundings.
Six weeks into the season, he had a minus-13 rating, and Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher was being criticized for sending second- and third-round draft picks to the Sharks for a past-his-prime defenseman who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Since his awful start with the Flyers, however, Braun has regrouped and found a comfort level. In the last three months, he has a plus-11 rating, has chipped in with three goals and some timely assists, and has played solid defense and been a key player on the penalty kill.
After taking turns playing alongside Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere earlier in the season, Braun seems to have found chemistry with Robert Hagg, his defensive partner in 10 of the last 11 games.
“He played such a long time with San Jose and he came to a new team and a new environment,” said coach Alain Vigneault, whose team starts a critical home-and-home set of games Tuesday against Columbus at the Wells Fargo Center. “What we’re seeing is what we expected to see — a guy who is defensively smart. He knows how to put himself in position to stop good players from getting good looks."
Lately, Braun’s experience “has been very beneficial to our defensemen and our forwards,” Vigneault said. "He’s a real good person, and he’s sharing his experience with everybody right now.”
Braun, a Minnesota native who recently turned 33, conceded it took him several weeks to get comfortable with the Flyers
“It was a tough start. Coming into a new system took a while," he said. "I didn’t settle in, and some bounces here and there you’re kind of eating. Right now, things are kind of going the opposite direction, and you just have to ride that wave when it’s going that way. I’ve settled in now.”
Braun, a right-handed shooter, and Hagg are primarily stay-at-home defenders.
"I’ve been playing with Bob for a while now,” said Braun, who is second on the team with 70 blocked shots, “and have that comfort level.”
Braun (80 hits) and Hagg (107 hits) form the Flyers’ most physical pairing. They also are adept at blocking shots, helping the Flyers allow a league-low 28.5 shots per game.
“It seems to be working,” Hagg said. “We just try to play our games. We know what we’re good at, and that’s defending, so we play our battles down low and try to get the pucks to the forwards as quick as we can.”
Steady play from Hagg and Braun has helped the Flyers improve their defense and stay in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. If the Flyers reach the post-season, Braun will bring a wealth of experience, having played in 84 Stanley Cup playoff games with the Sharks.
In two pivotal matchups, the Flyers host the Blue Jackets on Tuesday, then play at Columbus on Thursday. They are among the teams battling for playoff spots in the crowded Eastern Conference race.
The Flyers have 7-4 and 3-2 wins this season in their two previous games against Columbus, which is missing two key players to injury — right winger Cam Atkinson and defenseman Seth Jones.
In the 7-4 victory on Oct. 26, the Flyers stunningly scored five goals in the final 9-minutes, 8-seconds to erase a 4-2 deficit at the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers had a 76-38 domination in shot attempts, and James van Riemsdyk scored a pair of goals..
The 3-2 win on Nov. 27 was the Flyers’ first regulation victory in Columbus since 2005. Claude Giroux’s power-play goal was the game-winner, and Brian Elliott starred in the victory.