If you’re a hockey fan on the east coast and you aren’t familiar with the name Justin Braun, you’re not alone. The San Jose Sharks’ 28-year-old shut-down defenseman is one of the most underrated and least talked about defenseman in the NHL. Overshadowed by defense partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Braun is an elite-level defensive defenseman with vastly underrated puck-moving skills. The Minnesota native has 14 points on the season, all but one of which has come at even strength. Despite minimal time spent on the power play, Braun is still on pace for an extremely solid 33 points.
Criminally underrated, Braun should have been part of Team USA at the 2014 Olympics. Back then, Braun wasn’t having the offensive season he is currently enjoying but he was still a top-notch two-way defenseman. This year, he continues to face brutally tough assignments against the opponents top players night after night and manages to out-perform said competition. His Corsi-for percentage is an average 49.2 but one has to take into account that basically being even in puck possession against ridiculously tough competition is actually quite phenomenal.
Braun plays some of the hardest minutes in all of the NHL, more difficult than most shut-down defenders. His opponent’s Corsi-For per 60 minutes is the 15th best out of more than 100 defenseman who have skated over 500 even-strength minutes this season. The top American defenseman in the league, Ryan Suter ranks No. 1 in this category. During next year’s tournament, Braun would be the ideal partner for Suter.
Why Braun Makes Sense for Suter
Suter as a left-handed defenseman will be taking up tough assignments in the 2016 World Cup of hockey for Team USA. Of the top right-handed American-born defensemen, Braun is the best suited to handle the high-end skill of the top lines for opposing countries. Braun is also no slouch offensively in comparison to his fell countrymen defenders. Through December 30th, Braun is fifth among American born defenseman in the NHL with his 13 even strength points.
The other right-handed American born defenders that would fit with Suter are John Carlson, Justin Faulk, Dustin Byfuglien, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Erik Johnson. Certainly cases can be made for all of these players, but Braun is having a career year and has been more consistent defensively in recent years than the rest of this group. Carlson is having a terrific year for the Washington Capitals with Corsi-for and Goals-for that are right on par with Braun’s but in years past Braun has been the better player away from the puck. St. Louis’ Shattenkirk has posted some incredibly stingy GF/60 numbers in years past but has been limited this year due to injury, isn’t facing top tier competition and has the lowest defensive-zone start percentage of all his fellow Blues defensemen. Braun on the other hand, leads the Sharks in defensive zone starts and faces the toughest competition.
Johnson, Byfuglien and Faulk are too offensive-minded in their styles to be used in shut-down minutes. For being offensive minded, Johnson’s Corsi-for in tough minutes is a disappointing 44.2. Byfuglien, like the Sharks’ Burns, has moved up to forward and back to defense throughout his career, if he was a pure shut-down type like Braun, he never would play up front. Shut-down defenseman are too rare and too important defensively to be moved up to forward. Byfuglien is having a terrific season for Winnipeg but he’s not the type to be relied up on in a shut-down minutes. Faulk has an impressive 53.2 Corsi-for percentage for Carolina but a 43.9% Goals-for percentage is disappointing.
Braun Not Just a Product of Vlasic
This season Braun is playing just as good, if not better than all the other right-handed American born defenseman. His defensive game has been terrific over the years and if you’re thinking his numbers are only inflated due to playing with Vlasic, you couldn’t be more wrong. During the 2013-14 season, Braun played the second half of the year carrying an over-the-hill Brad Stuart on his back and still performed at a high level. In over 500 minutes with Stuart, Braun posted a 58.1 Goals-for percentage and a 53.1 Corsi-for percentage. Absolutely terrific numbers while having an anchor for a partner. Stuart’s numbers away from Braun were significantly worse, 48.7 Goals-for and 49.7 Corsi.
Braun’s two-way skill set is equal to or more valuable than any of the current right-handed American born defenseman. He makes the most sense to not only be on Team USA come September, but to face the toughest minutes. And again, Braun faces incredibly difficult competition, yet he still makes amazing passes like this one below, on a regular basis.
That is Joe Pavelski, Braun’s would be American teammate at the September 2016 World Cup tournament,emphatically pointing back at Braun in appreciate of the awesome pass. The Flyers broadcast can be heard calling the passing lane a “big seam” but the slow motion replays don’t do the dish justice. Braun has to fit the pass past the stick of the immediate back-checking forward and keep it out of range of the late turning Radko Gudas. This really was a terrific pass, and vision to see Pavelski open on the back door.
Braun is holding his own in Corsi against insane competition and his current goals-for percentage is an impressive 54.5. His gap control and stick positioning is impeccable and that allows him to defuse potential quality looks from opposing forwards on a regular basis. Team USA could do no better than Braun as Suter’s defense partner.