New York Rangers' Brady Skjei: Beast on the blueline 1
Jan 19, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei (76) watches his shot score against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. New York defeated Toronto 5-3. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Brady Skjei’s performance on the blueline during his rookie campaign has solidified him as an elite caliber NHL defenseman.

The New York Rangers’ defense has been criticized for the entire season. One constant that has generally escaped that criticism has been the performance of rookie defenseman, Brady Skjei.

Touted for his mobility, Skjei was drafted by the Rangers at number 28 overall out the University of Minnesota in the 2012 NHL entry draft. He is a player that is spoken about in the same conversational circles as Columbus’ Seth Jones and Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba.

Skjei made his NHL debut for the Rangers on Dec. 15, 2015 against the Edmonton Oilers. Playing a total of seven games in the 2015-16 season, Skjei registered 11 hits over 124:00 of ice time and an average TOI of 17:44. He did not register a point in the regular season, but his showing in the playoffs was a different story.

The spotlight was on Skjei during the 2016 playoffs. Injuries and poor play by Rangers defenseman down the stretch forced Alain Vigneault to insert a young, essentially untested defender into his defensive scheme. Over five dreadful games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the only shining stars for the Rangers was #76, Brady Skjei. He registered his first NHL points (2A) and was a +1 after logging significant ice time.

Skjei’s ability to shut down top NHLers such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and cagey veteran defender Kris Letang highlighted Skjei’s defensive prowess and his uncommonly high hockey acumen: he only took one penalty in the tournament. Veteran forwards are adept at getting unseasoned defensemen to commit bad, untimely penalties – especially if their names are Crosby, or Kessel.

Skjei’s cameo in 2015-16 made him a virtual lock for an NHL roster spot coming out of the 2016 Rangers training camp.

Skjei took advantage of his opportunity last season to earn a spot on the Opening Night roster in 2016. Skjei’s rookie campaign has featured a steady, reliable series of shut down performances opposite top NHL lines. That he has put this display on while playing for a head coach with a well-documented preference for established veterans over youth is an impressive credit. He is entrusted with big minutes every game: through 55 starts, he is averaging 16:39TOI this season. That’s a lot of ice time for a rookie defender under Alain Vigneault.

The offensive side of his game is also flourishing — and I’ll get to that in a moment, but — unless “Skjei” appears on the score sheet, his name isn’t mentioned all that often. For a defenseman, that can either mean little to no impact in a game, OR it means he is doing his job right and avoiding making mistakes in his own zone. Skjei, much like Ryan McDonagh, rarely turns the puck over in the defensive end and often provides quick, accurate outlet passes to charging forwards in transition.

Enough about Skjei’s defense, let’s talk about his outstanding offense

Through 55 games this season, Brady’s offensive production cannot be ignored. He has registered 25 points on 23 assists and two goals and done so while posting a +11 rating.

If I mention players like Brent Burns, Duncan Keith, Erik Karlsson, or Victor Hedman what is your immediate reaction?

Yeah, me too. Elite NHL defenseman who provide clutch offense. What if I told you that this season, Brady Skjei was on a list with all of those D-men? You don’t believe me right? I didn’t believe it either.

Even strength Assists (ESA) this season:

  • Burns (23)
  • Keith (23)
  • Karlsson (21)
  • Skjei (20)
  • Hedman(20)

Skjei finds himself in pretty good company there, but that’s not all. He also ranks

  • #9 amongst ALL NHL Defenseman in even strength points (88.90% ESP%);
  • #10 amongst all NHL rookies in points;
  • #2 in points for rookie defenseman (trailing Blue Jackets’ Zach Weresnki (31pts)).

Although Skjei doesn’t light the lamp often (8G in three seasons of NCAA play), his goal scoring is likely to improve as he develops and becomes more comfortable playing a longer schedule. He has shown he can send a clap-bomb to the back of the cage against NHL-caliber goaltending.

Here his first career NHL goal:

Skjei has also proven to be a great passer. It is his most prominent offensive trait. Check out this sequence where he takes a cross-ice pass from J.T. Miller at the point, fakes one pass, then fires it back to Michael Grabner, who promptly scores. That’s what we call great touch, vision, and anticipation.


Uncommon NHL Value

Skjei’s playing contribution is clearly worth having around, but his overall value gets upped considering that he’s playing on his entry level contract which pays him $925K against the cap through next season. At the conclusion of his ELC, he will likely be offered an economical two-year “bridge” deal, during which GM Jeff Gorton can further assess his development and potential in the league.

Another key aspect to his value is simply time-driven: any player with fewer than two seasons in the league is exempt from the NHL expansion draft. Skjei is obviously on that list (along with fellow Rangers Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey), making him untouchable in addition to cheap. For now.

The Rangers will be in a very different salary cap position when Skjei is eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2019-20 season. Names like Girardi and Staal will no longer be cap anchors and there will undoubtedly be other boulders Gorton will have to negotiate around when dealing with Skjei’s agent.

Sit back and enjoy the way this young kid can play the game. If the early returns are indicative of what Skjei can become, expect him to make an impact in this league for years to come. While the Rangers can ill afford not to figure him into the team’s long-term cap scheme, the fans can ill afford to miss a beat of his exciting growth as a player. Don’t be surprised if in years to come he becomes an important leader on the ice in New York.

It is very possible we are watching the rise of the Rangers’ next Norris Trophy winner.

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