You can only have one. That’s the premise of the Flyers Free Agent Focus series here at Philly Sports Network. The Flyers have a handful of players coming off the books, and a limited amount of cap to bring them back if they so desire. We’ve touched on the Grant v. Thompson debate, now we head to the blue line to discuss Justin Braun and Robert Hagg.
The quick rundown is this: the Flyers have just under eight million dollars to spend to fill one forward, two defense, and one backup goalie position this offseason. With the salary cap remaining the same going into next year, Chuck Fletcher is in an unenviable position. Operating under the assumption that the fifth defensive spot is filled, we take a look at the sixth and final spot on the Flyers blue line, and who should get it between Hagg and Braun.
The thought alone of Robert Hagg is an enigma. While many call for his head night-in and night-out, others die on the mountain of, “he’s not a bad sixth defenseman.” Truth is, the later are correct. Robert Hagg is Brandon Manning 2.0. No, we aren’t talking about anything but their play. Hagg’s prior deal was a two year, $1.15 million deal. He will likely be looking for a bit of a raise, but nothing too far from his prior deal.
His play would suggest just that. Hagg is not Shayne Gostisbehere. Let’s say that again. Robert Hagg is not Shayne Gostisbehere. He won’t blow you away with his offensive prowess. He won’t be the guy you depend on to quarterback the powerplay. However, he is the guy you can put out there to soak up minutes so Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen aren’t playing 30 minutes per night.
With 13 points in 49 games, Hagg surpassed his prior point-per-game high of .24 with a .27. Mind boggling stat, huh? Here’s something encouraging. Hagg’s average time on ice two seasons ago was in the 18’s. Last season, he saw 16:57 per night on average. This season, he averaged 15:36 per night. The biggest difference is coaching. While former head coach Dave Hakstol relied more heavily upon Hagg in his time with the Flyers, Alain Vigneault understands his skillset and doesn’t over-expose him minutes-wise.
Hagg is also averaging over three hits per game over his career. Sure, this isn’t the biggest argument booster, but hits still play a role in the game. Momentum swings, knocking a player off the puck, Hagg’s hits count, and he lays them in bunches.
Hagg had three assists in his 12 playoff games this postseason. Again, he won’t be the type of player to score big time points. However, he is a guy you can rely upon to come up with a big hit. His chips out of the zone may not look great for his possession metrics, but it buys the Flyers plenty of time to change lines up and get fresh legs on the ice. There’s a purpose to what Hagg does when he’s on the ice, whether the analytics cult wants to admit it or not.
Braun came to the Flyers via a trade with the San Jose Sharks during the offseason. The price was a bit high, but the Flyers got a solid veteran defenseman that their younger core on the blue line could learn from at the time.
Braun underwhelmed. He was typically paired with Hagg on the third pairing. He was a steady presence, but didn’t do enough to make the trade seem worthwhile. As a one year rental of sorts, Braun earned $3.8 million on the last year of his five year, $19 million deal he signed with the San Jose Sharks back in 2014.
As mentioned before, Braun was underwhelming. He was never going to be an offensive dynamo, but was tasked with backstopping the Flyers defense and being a positive presence for the younger defensemen. Braun played 62 games and recorded three goals and 16 assists for 19 points total. While he had one of his highest point-per-game averages this season (.31,) he struggled to really play up to the contract.
Braun may never have been the worst player on the ice, but he also never took off the way many fans wanted him to. His numbers were fine in many regards, but being the “safe” defenseman isn’t always the best in the eyes of many, especially fans.
Come playoff time, Braun contributed two assists in 16 games while adding 23 hits and 29 blocks. He was a solid defender all year long, with mishaps along the way that happen to even the best of them. The one thing that sticks out is the fact that he’s a bottom-pairing defenseman making almost four million dollars per year. The Flyers already have one of those, and he’s been spending a lot of him time in the press box.
On paper, Braun is the better defenseman. It isn’t by a long shot, but he’s eight years senior and that comes with much more experience. Hagg has his flaws, but he’s not as bad of a defenseman as some make him out to be. This choice boils down to money, as will a lot of roster decisions Chuck Fletcher has to make.
On one hand, Hagg will likely be due a small raise from his $1.15 million deal. If they so wish, the Flyers could tender an offer to Hagg for the same amount, but any team can then sign him to an offer sheet. If a team were to do so at that amount, they wouldn’t need to part with a draft pick, according to CapFriendly.
On the other hand, Braun likely will see a slight decrease in the dollar value of his next deal. It’s likely that Braun will command up-to or around three million dollars. With those figures, the decision is an easy one.
Robert Hagg is the guy who gets signed here. With a stagnant cap and Fletcher needing to be frugal, some corners will be cut and Hagg is one of them. While he may not be quite the defenseman Braun is, he isn’t very far off. He’s come up through the Flyers system, has a year with Alain Vigneault already under his belt, and is more familiar with potential pairing partners than Braun is with his one year of being a Flyer.
Hagg’s familiarity with the Flyers organization paired with Braun’s price tag being almost two million dollars more equals Hagg keeping his orange and black sweater over Braun.
Mandatory Credit – Alex McIntyre