For most of his career, San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been unfairly underrated. However, thanks in part to his two recent appearances for Team Canada (2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup of Hockey), Vlasic has now rightfully become a household name. Vlasic’s long-time defensive partner though remains the criminally underrated Justin Braun.
Underrated Justin Braun Ain’t No Sidekick
Was the underrated Justin Braun completely overlooked by Team USA? There was hardly a blip about Braun, a Minneapolis Minnesota native, making either of those USA teams. And that’s a shame because Braun is certainly far more than just Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s sidekick. Unfortunately, the two defensive stalwarts rarely spend any time away from each other. Ergo, there isn’t much evidence toward how Braun plays away from Vlasic.
In order to find the last significant time that Braun spent away from Vlasic, we have to go back to the 2013-14 season. Braun played most of the second half next to an aging Brad Stuart. Vlasic played mostly with Jason Demers. The 2012-13 eye test suggests that Braun carried Stuart on his back. Their assignments weren’t the toughest, but certainly not the easiest either. The advanced stats back this assertion up. When apart from Stuart, Braun delivered a 55.43% Fenwick. While with Stuart, that number barely dropped at all, down to just 54.66%. Stuart however, saw his Fenwick % without Braun fall all the way from 54.66 down to 49.32%.
Braun deserves far more credit than he does in the national media. Unfortunately, the Sharks often don’t start their games until 10:30 EST. Plus being a shut-down defenseman means Braun doesn’t typically make the network highlight reels. His incredible stick positioning, solid skating and strength allow him to shield skilled forwards away from dangerous scoring areas. A nice denial of a one-on-one rush won’t make the highlights for NHL on the Fly.
Underrated Two-way Ability
Defensive play away from the puck isn’t the only strength of Braun’s game. Braun is solid breaking the puck out of his own zone and does a great job of jumping up on the rush. At times he even leads the rush if forwards are changing. Braun can deke/stick handle much more creatively than a typical shut-down defenseman.
When it comes to scoring, Braun is currently enjoying career year with 30 points. As of just recently, Braun’s 27 assists actually had him tied for third on the Sharks—behind only Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. In fact, if we break it down further and only look at even-strength assists, Braun is tied with Burns for fifth among all defensemen in the NHL. The only defensemen with more even strength assists this season than Braun? Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Drew Doughty and Jake Gardiner.
Lack of Power Play Time
Braun gets absolutely no power play time these days under Pete Deboer and that is a shame. Even though Burns has a more powerful point shot, Braun’s wrister from the point is arguably just as effective. Braun keeps his head up while shooting and rarely gets his quick-release wrist shot blocked. At the very least, Braun should be getting second unit time ahead of Vlasic and Dylan DeMelo. However, Braun is averaging just five seconds of power play time this season. He’s behind Vlasic at 1:09 and Demelo at 0:29.
Despite insanely tough match-ups night after night, the underrated Justin Braun has been a plus defenseman in each of the past five seasons. This year he currently sits at plus-8, despite a drop in possession numbers the past two seasons compared to previous years. While the possession numbers may be a concerning trend now that he is 31-years-old, the fact remains he is a two-way stud deserving of far more recognition. If he were used as a top-unit power-play quarterback, Braun would likely be a 50-point defenseman.
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