How Flyers blueliner Justin Braun has held down a top-pair spot in Ryan Ellis’ absence
The defensive-minded Braun has fit right in next to Ivan Provorov on the Flyers' top pair.
With the Flyers and Flames tied at 1 in the second period last Tuesday, Calgary winger Johnny Gaudreau went flying down the left side of the neutral zone with the puck on his stick. Nothing but open ice stood between Gaudreau and Flyers goalie Carter Hart.
That sight, nightmare fuel for opponents of the Flames, didn’t shake Flyers defenseman Justin Braun. The 34-year-old matched Gaudreau’s stride, closed the gap, and thrust the blade of his stick in his path, nudging the puck away from one of the league’s top players. It was a subtle but critical play that didn’t show up in the box score.
“I think [Braun] probably has the best stick in the league,” defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. “So it’s great to see. I think he’s a great, great defender and he shuts [down] the other teams’ top lines pretty well. It’s been good for us.”
Braun lamented the not-so-pretty fashion in which the Flyers recorded a 2-1 overtime victory against the Flames. To his dismay, Gaudreau finished with 10 shots on goal — “You don’t want to give those guys that many chances,” Braun said with a laugh. “ ‘Cause most of the time, they’re gonna find the back of the net if they get that many shots.”
Regardless, from Gaudreau to Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin, the Flyers have found ways to prevent some of the best players in the world from scoring this season. Most impressively, they’ve done so without defenseman Ryan Ellis, who will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury.
» READ MORE: Ryan Ellis out 4-6 weeks with lower-body injury
By sliding into Ellis’ place alongside Ivan Provorov on the top pairing, Braun has filled a major void and been a key figure in the Flyers’ defensive success. Through 15 games, the Flyers rank ninth in the NHL in goals against per game (2.63), a stark improvement over last season’s league-worst finish (3.52).
“I don’t feel like when [we’re] running around our zone that the structure falls apart,” Braun said. “Guys are, even if they get some O-zone time, we’re doing a much better job keeping the outside, not giving them those shots from the slot. When we are, Hartsy’s or Joner’s [Martin Jones] been there for us.
“Last year, we weren’t doing that. We were just kind of one shift would lead to another bad shift, and then that led to a goal again.”
Since Ellis’ lower-body injury, suffered on Oct. 20 against Boston, Braun has been paired with Provorov. Although Braun and Provorov played together for roughly 430 minutes over the course of 50 games last season, this is the longest consecutive stretch that Braun has played on the top pairing since his days with the San Jose Sharks alongside Marc- Édouard Vlasic.
Together, Braun and Vlasic were tasked with stifling the league’s top lines. Early in his nine-season tenure with the Sharks, Braun absorbed some of Vlasic’s habits in an effort to establish himself as a shutdown defenseman in the NHL.
“He doesn’t hit a lot of guys, but he is able to knock pucks off guys’ sticks,” Braun said of Vlasic. “Especially when I came in the league, guys were pretty big back then. I wasn’t gonna outmuscle them. I was not overly strong at that point, so the only way I could do it would go stick-on-puck and try to separate them.”
» READ MORE: Shorthanded Flyers grab a point but power play, shootout struggles persist
That skill set bodes well for Braun, whose stay-at-home style complements Provorov’s knack for jumping up and joining the rush. Braun said he’s learning ways to enhance Provorov’s game, like making the first play in the defensive zone, then getting the puck in Provorov’s hands so the young defenseman can wheel up the ice and into the offensive zone.
But above all else, Braun’s recent success is rooted in his consistency from game to game. He has had only six negative plus-minus games out of 16 to date and is a plus-3 for the season.
In his 12th NHL season, his third with the Flyers, Braun is secure in his defense-first, offense-second role — “I’m not going to beat guys one-on-one at this point,” he said. Having a handle on his strengths allows Braun to play smart and save his energy. He’s averaging 19 minutes, 48 seconds a game this season, up from 18:32 last season.
“You’ve got to be a little more careful with how much you’re practicing after practice, after [coach Alain Vigneault] blows the whistle,” Braun said. “If you’re playing that many minutes, you don’t want to waste your energy on things that really aren’t helping you at that point. Just conserving energy and playing smarter. Finding your spots, when to jump up, not just wasting time doing it and then you can’t play defense on the other end.”
Despite his defense-first mindset, Braun leads Flyers defensemen with eight points (one goal, seven assists). In just 16 games, he has already surpassed his point total from last season (six points in 53 games) and is on pace to best the career-high 33 points he amassed in 2017-18 with the Sharks.
“I don’t know exactly how a lot of these are shaking out for me,” Braun said. “But, you know, guys are scoring a little bit more than last year. You’re getting some second assists on two-on-ones, breakout kind of plays that maybe skew the stats a little bit more, that you have a little better year than you are.
“I’m just trying to chip in as much as I can. I think early points give you a little more confidence, too, to make those plays and [feel] a lot better about yourself.”
Braun admits he might not be a “flashy, take-over-a-game kind of player,” but his consistency has helped the Flyers defense make a drastic improvement on a nightmarish 2020-21 season.