Shortly after news broke Monday that Matt Niskanen was retiring, the Flyers re-signed Justin Braun to a two-year, $3.6 million deal with an average annual value of $1.8 million.
Braun was set to hit unrestricted free agency on Friday. The looming decision on Braun's potential return became magnified with the Flyers' unexpected loss of Niskanen, one of the club's best and most experienced blueliners.
The Flyers acquired the 33-year-old Braun last offseason in a trade with the Sharks. During his first season with the Flyers after spending his entire career in San Jose, where he played 84 playoff games over nine seasons, Braun was solid in exactly what the Flyers wanted out of him.
The stay-at-home, keep-it-simple Braun didn't get off to the best start but was one of the Flyers' better defensemen from just before Christmas to the end of the abbreviated regular season, putting up 14 points and a plus-11 rating over a 26-game stretch.
Braun's game is not offensive, however; he's at his best when he's killing plays and keeping the puck out of the defensive zone.
"If you want to end plays in this league, you've got to have a good stick and then you've got to get body,” Braun said in September 2019. “If you're soft out there, you're going to be in your D-zone all night. You've got to end those plays quick and try to get it going north, otherwise you're going to have a long night. Every shift I try to do that so I don't have to spend too much time in my D-zone."
The Flyers did those things much better in 2019-20, drastically improving their goal-prevention efforts. In 2018-19, the Flyers finished with a minus-37 goal differential and yielded the NHL's third-most goals per game at 3.41. In 2019-20, the Flyers were tied for the seventh-fewest goals allowed per game at 2.77 and sported a plus-36 goal differential.
"Braun isn’t going to win any contests for artistic merit on the ice, but he competes and he has a great stick," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said in September 2019 on Day 1 of training camp. "I went back and watched 20 games of clips just the other day again, he is unbelievable stick on puck. He is hard to play against. It's like seaweed, he's out there, there's arms and he’s battling and pushing you and poke-checking and he brings a real veteran savvy to the defensive part of the game."
In a challenging offseason with a flat cap because of the economic climate of the league, Braun's $1.8 million AAV is a fair one for both sides. For Braun, who turns 34 years old in February, the two years had to be attractive, along with staying put on a team that is on track to contend. He is making $2 million less annually than his previous deal, but that's the nature of the business and negotiating as players near their final contracts, especially in these tight of times financially across the league.
The Flyers still have more work to do in the offseason but re-signing Braun was a good step toward trying to make up for the Niskanen loss. They have good organizational depth on the blue line. They could still add externally, as well, although it won't be easy.
Niskanen was a multifaceted addition for the Flyers, improving the club at 5-on-5, on the penalty kill and the man advantage.
Braun is not that kind of player but can take on some of Niskanen's duties.
"Justin Braun is an elite penalty killer, one of the main reasons we brought him back," Fletcher said Monday in a video interview. "He’s a strong defender, but he certainly can take on an even bigger PK role if necessary. We have a player like Shayne Gostisbehere who can certainly take on more in terms of the power play. So we do have some options internally and we’ll just have to see."
The club has three players set to hit unrestricted free agency: Tyler Pitlick, Derek Grant and Nate Thompson. It also has two restricted free agents left to sign to new deals: Philippe Myers and Nolan Patrick, who are not arbitration eligible.
Teams have until Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. ET to submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents and those offers expire Oct. 18 at 5 p.m. ET.