Brady Skjei: A New Hope For Rangers Defense

When Brady Skjei was drafted by the New York Rangers with the 28th pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, one might not have assumed much of the pick. The Rangers defense was building itself quite nicely in a year featuring a run to the conference finals. Ryan McDonagh had established himself a strong number one in his first full season. Michael Del Zotto had a resurgent season. Marc Staal returned from his first concussion seemingly unaffected. Dan Girardi was still mobile. Dylan McIlrath was developing in the system. There was a hope that Michael Sauer would one day return and Anton Stralman, who was signed in his place, would soon break out. The Rangers seemed set on defense with the exception of Stu Bickel. Why would they need another defenseman?

It seemed almost guaranteed by some that the Rangers would select Stefan Matteau, son of Stéphane Matteau of the infamous 1994 overtime goal. The Rangers instead picked Skjei, a defenseman out of the U.S. National Development Program regarded by many scouts as the top skater amongst all defensemen in the draft. Despite that, his play was disputed by many with some calling him defensively oriented while others cited his ability to move the puck as him being an offensive player in the making. However, few would agree that his game lent itself to both sides of the ice. At the time he was a large body who could skate well with a career trajectory that would be some ways away given his college route.

Was it the Right Pick?

Five years later we find ourselves with a vastly different defense. Some of the names have not changed. McDonagh, Staal, and Girardi remain, though the latter as different players. Injuries have had their part in affecting all three. McDonagh is still the number one, though his game hasn’t grown to the Norris level some had hoped for. Staal, who suffered another concussion and a career-threatening eye injury since Skjei’s draft, has taken multiple steps back. Ironman Dan Girardi has shown the wear and tear of his shot blocking ways. Kevin Klein, Nick Holden, Brendan Smith, Adam Clendening and Steven Kampfer round out the current Rangers defense corps.

Defense is no longer a strength of the team. It’s become more of an Achilles’ heel as some of my colleagues have written about. Speed has become the game in the current NHL landscape and the Rangers defense is largely too slow to keep up. Not Brady Skjei, though.

The Lakeville, Minnesota native made his debut for the Rangers last season in several regular season appearances as an injury call up and then through a short-lived playoff stint. However, it was this past fall that he earned his spot on the Rangers defense full-time on the third pairing next to Kevin Klein. For the first half of the season, Skjei’s game had its ups and downs typical of a rookie player. So much so that Head Coach Alain Vigneault would scratch him in a December game stating, “I thought the last little while he’s been kind of struggling. When we were looking at the scoring chances against and all the other information, we felt this was the best move.”

Skjei’s play had dropped in the four games prior to his scratching as evidenced by a fall to a 45.61% corsi when in the prior four games he had posted a 58.7%. His play throughout the first several months lacked consistency. Still, he was able to contribute to the scoresheet with 16 points in 38 games, good for second amongst rookie defensemen behind Zach Werenski with 24 points in 35 games.

On the Rise

Since January 1st, shortly after his only healthy scratch of the season, Skjei’s play has reached a new level of consistency that was unseen in the first half. His corsi for during the first 38 games he played prior to January 1st was 47.71%. Since then he’s improved to 52.98%, behind only Adam Clendening, who leads the team at 55.12% in 18 games. Through the seven games played most recently in the month of March, his corsi is a team-leading 51.52% while Adam Clendening, now a healthy scratch, dipped to a 46.67% in his last two appearances. On a team that has largely struggled with puck possession the past few seasons, Skjei’s ability to drive possession helps separate him from the rest of the defensive corps, demonstrating his strengths as a player.

One might have expected that because of his strong defensive play in the second part of the season that Skjei’s offense might have dissipated. Fortunately for the Rangers, that hasn’t been the case. Skjei’s offense has come out even stronger with 16 points in his last 31 games. He’s first amongst Ranger defensemen in scoring during that span and second in overall rookie scoring for the season, still behind Werenski. He has shown more confidence with the puck as demonstrated by his frequent use of stretch passes to spring the offense:

Skjei kept his head up and launched a confident stretch pass to Zuccarello which resulted in an odd-man rush and a goal. He would make a similar pass in a recent game against the Panthers to spring Kevin Hayes for a breakaway goal. While it shouldn’t be expected that Skjei consistently use a stretch pass because of its high riskiness, he has begun to show that his offense is not as reliant upon his ability to just skate the puck up the ice as it once had been. He also finds himself one of the only defensemen on the roster who possesses the ability to spring a long play and not simply force the puck out of the zone as some other players, such as Marc Staal, have shown on occasion.

It’s plays like the below give-and-go with Michael Grabner against the Calgary Flames that also show that Skjei is capable of making plays once in the offensive zone. After selling a fake slapshot he launched a cross-ice pass to a streaking Grabner who beats Elliot.

Power Play Savior?

Skjei’s ability to produce offensively may warrant increased time on what has been a struggling Rangers powerplay. He currently receives an average of 1:01 PP TOI per game, but that time should find itself increasing given his 15 points at even strength over the last 31 games. His ability to produce should only increase with more space. The team would also welcome his ability and willingness to shoot on the man advantage. He is second behind McDonagh with 55 shots (of which 22 have been slapshots) since the start of the New Year. McDonagh has been the defacto man on the point but that should be up for contention given Skjei’s demonstrated offensive abilities.

Given his play this season, it isn’t out of left field to say that Skjei might soon reach Ryan McDonagh’s level of play or even surpass it. He has a long way to go, but it isn’t as far off as one may have expected even several months ago.

Situationally their trajectories don’t quite compare given the circumstances McDonagh found himself in when he first joined the team. After being brought up in the spring of 2011 to replace a traded Michal Rozsival, McDonagh played 40 games in the regular season averaging 18:44 TOI/G and then another five in the playoffs averaging 22:49 TOI/G. This would all occur in McDonagh’s first professional season out of college. Skjei, on the other hand, spent most of his first professional season with the Hartford Wolfpack. He is currently in his second professional season averaging 17:01 TOI/G versus the 24:44 McDonagh received in his second professional season as the Rangers top defenseman. There’s no debating the disparate usage between McDonagh and Skjei at the same age and McDonagh was spectacular in his debut. That’s no knock on Skjei, but McDonagh was used in a larger role and performed incredibly well. In just his first full season he had a 44.35 5on5 OZ% meaning that he faced far more defensive assignments. Skjei, on the other hand, has faced a more protected 56.11 5on5 OZ%.

There’s a disparity in the quality of competition and the assignments faced, but nonetheless, Brady Skjei has performed very well in the role he has been given. Alain Vigneault has made the right move not to rush him along despite the ailing Rangers blueline. Instead, Skjei is being nurtured and showing signs that he can perhaps one day achieve the level of play Ryan McDonagh has. It may not arrive as quickly, but the signs are certainly there.

Several months ago Brady Skjei was a questionable commodity. He was struggling to display his potential with a rough preseason, inconsistent play throughout the first several months and could very well have found himself a trade chip to aid the team. But patience prevailed, and Skjei has rewarded the Rangers with plenty of promise. For a team with a blue line as weak as the Rangers, that potential is invaluable.

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