As Brady Skjei enters his second full season with the New York Rangers, all signs to the young defenseman breaking out in a major way.
To be only 23 years old and playing for the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden has to be a great feeling.
For Brady Skjei, last season came with plenty of ups and downs as every rookie in the NHL experiences. Skjei had an incredible learning curve as he struggled with the puck and turnovers early in the year, all the way through the great playoff run he had.
In 80 games last season, Skjei recorded five goals and 34 assists and was a plus-11. His season began with Kevin Klein as his partner, which had its issues. Klein struggled defensively and Skjei got caught out of position, forcing the wrong passes out of his end. But head coach Alain Vigneault had faith in his rookie defenseman and kept playing him.
As the season went on, his play improved and you could see his confidence begin to increase. At the trade deadline, the Rangers acquired defenseman Brendan Smith from the Detroit Red Wings. This was the trade that allowed Skjei’s play to improve dramatically. Once Smith was paired with Skjei, you could see the defenseman everyone was expecting to see emerge right in front of your eyes. He played faster and smarter with scoring opportunities becoming more common.
Once the playoffs started, Skjei played like a veteran. He played in all 12 playoff games and scored four goals with one assist and was a plus-6. His defensive coverage was very noticeable as he took regular shifts against the opposition’s top players. Skjei was one of the few playoff standouts for a team that struggled so much on defense.
Now as he prepares for his second year on the Rangers blueline, Skjei needs to take all that he learned last year and take the next step in his development. He needs to be one of, if not the best defenseman on the roster.
He has the skill, speed and hockey sense to get it done. The difference this year is that Skjei has the experience. He has a better understanding of what to expect day in and day out from his coaches and teammates. That theory works the other way too, as the opposing teams now know who he is as well.
As with any good Rangers defenseman that starts to emerge with the team, he will always be compared to all-time Blueshirts legend Brian Leetch. It happens quite often, most recently with current captain Ryan McDonagh. Once the fans and media see a player with such great speed and puck handling, Leetch’s name always comes up. The question now is how will Skjei handle this new pressure?
The first-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft has carved out a nice spot in the Rangers lineup. The expectations for him this season will be very high as the organization did its best to shake up the blueline from last year and made vast improvements. Skjei will be skating primarily with Smith—at least at the start of the season—but should be prepared to skate with any of the other five defensemen in the lineup.
We are sure to see Skjei get some power play time with McDonagh or newly acquired Kevin Shattenkirk throughout the season. With a pair of high-caliber defensemen around him, Skjei will now have even more responsibility to play at a higher level.
That’s especially true since he’ll likely be on the team’s second defense pairing. That means he’ll see his share of high-scoring forwards attacking his end of the ice. But he’s up for the challenge.
This is Skjei’s time to shine brightly in a city of bright lights. It’s going to be fun to watch this Minnesota native skate game in and game out. Maybe we all get lucky and another Leetch comparison will be brought to our attention. Maybe Skjei can find a moment as Brian Leetch did in June 1994.