Braun adds depth to the Mass Attack

By DJ Powers

Justin Braun may be the best San Jose Sharks collegiate prospect that you’ve never heard of.

Flying under the radar is nothing new to the sophomore defenseman. He simply takes it all in stride and focuses on what matters most – continuing to develop and improve his all-around game.

Braun came to the University of Massachusetts from Green Bay (USHL) in the fall of 2006. Despite a solid junior career, the Vadnais Heights, MN native drew surprisingly little interest among college recruiters. Braun says that one of the primary reasons why he chose to come to UMass was because of the team’s interest in him.

"At the time, they were really the only team that wanted me. I talked to (Minnesota State) Mankato a couple of times too, but they (UMass) came out to see me and in the game that they came out to see me in I got hurt. Then they invited me out for a visit and I liked everyone. So I figured that I’d try Hockey East out. I didn’t really know much about it."

Head coach Don Cahoon admittedly was concerned about the possibility of not being able to bring the young defenseman to UMass but is elated that he did.

"I was concerned when Justin was in Green Bay and I went out there to see him. I really liked him and I make no bones about this. I had real good input from the staff at Green Bay about what type of kid Justin was. Soon after we invited him for a visit and he came. After that, I sent out my assistant coaches to watch him play to verify what I had seen. He got along with everyone but was fairly quiet and unassuming. We made what we felt was a pretty attractive offer to him and tried to give him a real clear sense of where we thought he would fit into the development of our program. It just seemed to all come together in the end. That was a big relief for us because Justin was the guy that we wanted."

Since his arrival in Amherst, Braun has quietly blossomed into one of the Minutemen’s most reliable defensemen. Nowhere has his game grown more than on the offensive side. He has seen considerable time on the UMass power play and can regularly be found jumping into the plays. However, as Braun explains, that hasn’t always been the case in his hockey career.

"In Green Bay we didn’t do a lot of jumping (into plays) like that, like the first tee up. I don’t think that we stressed it that much. Even back in high school, I was never really a big goal scorer. Here we work on drills every week with the defense pushing up to get up into the play for a four-man rush or being the third man in the zone."

Like every freshman, Braun went through the usual adjustment process last season. But what made his adjustment to the collegiate game even more of a test was becoming more of a two-way defenseman. The tremendous progress that he made earned him a selection to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team and paid big dividends for UMass, particularly in helping the team earn their first ever NCAA Tournament berth. By this time, Braun had already begun to turn more than a few heads.

One NHL team that took particular notice was the San Jose Sharks, who selected him 201st overall (seventh round) in last summer’s draft. Braun was thrilled about being chosen, but unfortunately he didn’t have anyone to share with at the time.

"I was excited. I was actually sitting in my basement on the computer watching it and no one was home. I tried calling my parents who were at my little brother’s baseball game and for a while I couldn’t get a hold of them to tell them the news. So I was just congratulating myself," he said, laughing.

Braun attended the Sharks prospects camp later in the summer and explained that it was both a challenging and an eye-opening experience.

"It was tough. It was probably the hardest week of the summer that I had. I was doing a lot of power skating and stuff that I hadn’t done in a really long time. They spend so much time on their skating, and just their power skating. I felt like a fish out of water for like the first half of the week, but I thought that I caught on pretty quickly. We actually had quite a few guys that played with the Sharks last year that were there. So we would watch what they did and tried to take a little something away from their game and add it to ours. I was in awe sometimes just watching some of the stuff that they did."

Braun lists former Vancouver Canuck Pavel Bure as his favorite NHLer, but doesn’t really pattern his game after anyone in particular.

Coming off of his successful freshman campaign, the expectations would continue to be equally high, if not higher for the young blueliner this season. To date, he has posted nine points (three goals, six assists) playing in all 15 games. His nine points also leads all UMass defensemen.

One notable area of Braun’s maturity is his added size and strength, and it had added to his outstanding skating ability. As Braun explains maintaining his speed and mobility are vital to his expanded role, specifically on the power play this season.

"It’s mostly on the power play where my role has expanded because they have me playing a kind of a forward-hybrid position, where I start on the half wall right now. I have to be more patient and wait for plays to develop. I have to move it right away to the open man and I’m really trying to set it up and wait for guys to get into position. It has taken a little bit more work because there’s a lot more skating involved. You have to get up and down the ice a little more."

"Justin has just made enormous strides physically," said Cahoon. "He’s so much stronger and more powerful. It has affected his skating stride and as well as his one-on-one play and shooting. I see that every day in practice. It just shows itself more and more."

In addition to the power play, Braun also sees time in penalty-killing situations as well. He logs a lot of ice time every game, which is a testament to how valuable of an asset that he has become to his UMass team.

So what does Braun feel are his greatest strengths and weaknesses?

"I guess my strengths are shooting the puck and just making the first pass out of the zone," he said. "I work really hard on doing that. I think my weakness is in changing directions. I’m still working on when guys make quick moves in the corner and trying to stay with them because they can get crafty and I have to be able to stay with the quicker guys in the league."

Cahoon echoed some of those sentiments.

"We pride ourselves in trying to transition the puck quickly. And there are times when the transition might not be there and buying time is a factor. That comes with savvy and experience. I think he’ll continue to work on that and his first step. That’s going to be something that can be trained to a greater degree. We’re also trying to work with him on becoming his own best coach, so that he continues to stay with the nuance of the game and the things that can compliment his team the most."

Braun admits that there is one habit that he’s trying to break.

"From time to time I am hard on myself, but I try not to be," he said. "Sometimes I become kind of a head case because I think about my game too much. (laughs)  That’s when (David) Leaderer tells me not get too worked up about it and to just keep it on an even keel."

All collegiate players have certain opposing players and road rinks that they feel are more challenging to play against and in than others. For Braun, the most difficult collegiate player and road rink that he has had to contend with are ones that players in Hockey East are quite familiar with.

"Nathan Gerbe is a tough guy to stay with because he’s just all over the place. He drives me nuts out there. It’s just his speed and quickness that are tough. You have to have the quick feet and the strength in the corner to track him down. He’s got a really quick release too and you don’t know when the shot is coming.

"As for road rinks, I like UNH (Whittemore Center) and the spirit of their fans is great but it’s a tough barn to go into because they’re on you the whole game and they’ll rain comments down on you all day."

The mutual respect that Braun and Cahoon have for another has produced numerous rewards that player and coach, as well as the team have all benefited from. One of those rewards is having a player who compliments the team’s system perfectly.

"Coach Cahoon has got a lot of energy. He brings it to the rink every day and expects us to have the same thing and gets on us if we’re not bringing it every day," Braun said of his coach. "He has a lot of compassion but he also expects a lot from us. I think the greatest thing that he’s taught me is just having the drive out there and telling me to not give up on the play. He tells me to just work hard."

"Justin is just an extremely solid player that I think will be an excellent player in another two or three years. We tell him to just keep working day to day, pay attention to the details, have fun with the game and enjoy your teammates because that’s all a part of developing yourself into a great player," Cahoon said of his young defenseman. "If there’s something that maybe people should know about Justin I think it’s his very quiet, intense drive to succeed. I think he has those still waters run deep and I think he has a very quiet intensity about him that serves him really well."

That quiet intensity and relentless drive have also made the sophomore into a top-flight defenseman with a tremendous upside as well.

Braun isn’t a flashy player. But then again he doesn’t need to be. His skills and tireless work ethic demonstrate quite well what he brings to each and every game.

And as far as he and his UMass team are concerned, that’s all that matters.