Despite the season being just half over, the Philadelphia Flyers will have a mountain to climb to get themselves into the playoff picture. With that said, the most likely candidate to be moved off of their roster comes in the form of a defensively reliable Justin Braun.
Braun has proven that he can move up and down the lineup and stick to his game despite the team largely struggling around him. In his career, he has always been one of the go-to defencemen in his own end, with a career defensive zone start percentage (dZS%) of over 61 percent. This season and the previous one has seen his dZS% as high as 69.4 and 67.3.
Braun has been able to fill in on the top pairing alongside Ivan Provorov all season due to the injury to Ryan Ellis. On top of that, he played 2:29 a game shorthanded and allowed the second-fewest goals against per 60 minutes (GA/60) among players who have dressed for at least 20 games on the Flyers with 2.2. Despite having the second-most shorthanded time on ice per game on the team, he has allowed the eight-most GA/60 while on the penalty kill.
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At the low price of $1.8 million for this unrestricted free agent (UFA), teams will be calling to acquire his services for a playoff run and to bolster their defence, while the Flyers will be able to get something around a third-rounder or similar value in a player in return. A pick in return could help the Flyers acquire a player in the retooling process, or it can be used to persuade a team to take on a bad contract like James van Riemsdyk. An acquired player in a scoring forward, on the cusp prospect, or defenceman could be an early fix or added piece for next season
We’ll begin with the obvious upgrade the Boston Bruins need to their third defence pairing. They have had John Moore, Jakub Zboril, Connor Clifton, and now Urho Vaakanainen receiving playing time — Zboril and Moore are injured, while Vaakanainen has recently gotten his shot in the NHL. He has performed well, but this may be one of the Bruins’ last chances at the Stanley Cup with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Tuukka Rask.
The idea is that they should go all-in. They’ve already addressed their goaltending but have holes to fill at forward and defence. There is a reason there have been many different defencemen getting into games for the Bruins. One hasn’t been able to clearly stand out from the rest and give the team that confidence they need to not address it any further.
The age and inexperience of Vaakanainen are what is the most concerning once the games get tighter and much more competitive. It will take a huge collapse by the Bruins to miss the playoffs at this point, so they have to be thinking about their first-round matchup against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Braun would fit in nicely on the third pairing for the Bruins and would be able to step up in the event of an injury to either Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo like he has done this season with the Flyers.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been shopping around for their biggest need, defence. Justin Holl isn’t the same player he was last season, Jake Muzzin has declined a bit, and the younger defencemen they’ve been slotting in on the third line this season just won’t cut it come playoffs with the likes of Timothy Liljegren and Travis Dermott.
The Maple Leafs have next to no cap space to work with, so a trade may entail sending a roster player back in return. The Flyers could take advantage of this and add a piece for next season who’s younger and could help turn the team around. With that said, a big-name defenceman might not be in the cards this season, though they have been linked to names like Josh Manson as of late.
Braun would come at a much cheaper price than some of the other options the Maple Leafs have available to them in both cost and average annual value (AAV). Jack Campbell seems to need some help on the back end as well, as his stats have declined significantly recently. That’s partly because he’s being overworked, as well as having had unsustainable stats at the beginning of the season. The playoffs get much tighter and more competitive, and the Maple Leafs will have to upgrade for their run if they want to make it past teams like the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Bruins.
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings are a competitive team and are right in the playoff race in the Pacific Division. Though it is the easiest division to make the playoffs in, that’s just the luck of the draw for them this season. The Kings are on the rise and should be in the playoff race to the very end. With that said, with the loss of Sean Walker for the season, they have yet to address that hole with a more experienced defenceman.
The Kings have just two defencemen who are averaging over 20 minutes a night, Drew Doughty and Matt Roy. With all the youth injected into the defensive group, the job has been done by committee. Braun will be able to come in and take some pressure off the young guys who have had to step up and provide the 29th-ranked penalty kill with some much-needed support. A team cannot expect to continue to win games if the penalty kill can’t keep the puck out of their net. Braun has been very solid in helping keep pucks out of his team’s net, at even strength and shorthanded, as I mentioned earlier.
After signing Alex Edler, he has spent much of his time with the Kings injured. Braun would be more efficient in his role, and the Kings have more than enough assets to move to acquire necessary upgrades.
New York Rangers
There’s no question that with the cap space that the New York Rangers have this season, they are going to make a big splash at the trade deadline, more than likely in the form of rentals before Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad’s new contracts kick in and they have to sign some of their younger talent. I would expect them to make two or more deals by the trade deadline.
The Rangers have the offensive side of their defence covered with Fox and Jacob Trouba, but they could do with a more veteran presence to help their goaltender out. They have a number of defencemen who are 24 years or younger. K’Andre Miller has played 100 NHL games, Braden Schneider has played just 10 (all this season), and Libor Hajek has appeared in 91. Meanwhile, Jarred Tinordi is not the calibre of player to be playing NHL games, especially not down the stretch and into playoffs. Braun would easily be able to shore up that third pairing behind Fox and Trouba and add to their solid penalty kill.
It’s not a matter of if Braun will be traded by the deadline, but rather to whom and what will the return be. This would be a good step in the right direction for a Flyers team that will be looking for a fresh start next season. Not only will these teams be interested in Braun, but they may also inquire about others from the current Flyers’ roster.