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Brady Skjei, the Rangers’ first-round draft pick in 2012, is having an outstanding rookie season. If he can take another step forward at some point between now and May and earn a consistent top-four role, he could help elevate the Rangers’ defense corps and alleviate some of the need to give up costly futures or forward depth for a defenseman. While he doesn’t generate the attention of some of the league’s other premier young defenseman, he’s quietly produced at a top level and may not be far from earning that role.
Skjei’s play has already earned him a spot, along with Ryan McDonagh, exclusively, as a sure part of the Rangers’ future blueline. Comparisons to the Rangers’ captain began almost as soon as Skjei was drafted. At the most base level, they’re easy to understand; both hail from Minnesota, went through the U.S. National Hockey Team Development Program en route to a Division I college, they’re both first-round picks, and each fills the strong but smooth-skating and decisive template organizations covet. It is the last of those that has primed Skjei for success in New York and set him apart from other defensemen—notably Dylan McIlrath—who have been left behind by the speed of the game.
Like McDonagh, Skjei has been praised for his poise and cerebral approach to being a professional and he himself recognizes the parallels.
“We have very similar playing styles, similar physical abilities,” Skjei said after a win over Arizona in October. “He’s a guy who plays a great 200-foot game. He gives me pointers on the bench, but taking in a lot of the stuff he does in practice – watching what he does definitely helps me a lot.”
Beyond the mental side of the game, Skjei mimics McDonagh’s production without the consistent highlights provided by the game’s elite like Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, or P.K. Subban. It’s the little plays and consistency that make Skjei a brilliant rookie and that’s not lost on his teammates, particularly Dan Girardi, who after years of playing on the right side of McDonagh, knows exactly what to look for.
“He’s a young guy, but he’s playing with some veteran poise out there,” Girardi said. “He really handled the puck well. When he had the opportunity, he has good legs and good skating ability, and he used that to his advantage tonight. You see little, subtle plays like that, when he sees when they are changing, and be able to get up the ice and make something happen. I think that’s big for him and for us.”
Subtle plays like the one he made in overtime against Detroit before J.T. Miller’s winner are the embodiment of what Girardi has pointed out.
(play starts at 2:30)
But make no mistake, while consistency and subtle plays have defined the rookie’s ascent, Skjei has flashed brilliance with his skating as was the case with the no-look, cross-ice assist to Michael Grabner against Calgary.
Substance over splash, however, has not halted Skjei’s production. This year, he’s been as productive as any rookie defenseman. Overall, he is tied for second in both points and assists. At even strength, Skjei is tied with Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov for the lead with 22 points while playing three fewer games and almost exactly five fewer minutes per game.
It’s interesting to note Skjei’s TOI vs. his production because relative to other “elite” rookie defensemen, Skjei’s ice time is very low. He ranks 15th in TOI/G among rookie blueliners but ranks first amongst rookie defenseman with fewer than 21:12 (Zach Werenski) per game. In fact, he ranks fourth in points amongst all defenseman—including veterans—with fewer than 20:00 per game.
That puts Skjei in elite company amongst his peers and suggests that should he earn an increase in minutes that puts him on par with some of his peers, a jump in production could follow. As it stands, he’s pacing 35 points, so a jump to 45-ish points in the next year or two shouldn’t be inconceivable.
In addition to points, Skjei’s possession numbers have been solid without too much sheltering. His 49.6% Corsi ranks first amongst Rangers defenseman who have played at least 20 games (this excludes Clendening) and his 50.7% Fenwick at even strength is also first in that group.
It’s hard to know what AV will do with Skjei throughout the course of the regular season and in the playoffs. Over the last five games, Skjei is averaging just 15:31 TOI/G game after stints in the top-four, including a spell on McDonagh’s right side. But if AV can trust him in a consistent top role as he did against Calgary, it might help to bolster the Rangers’ defense through the playoff push.