For Duchene, Brady Skjei Was Rightfully a Non-Starter

Immediately as the Rangers’ turned their play around (of course) and started their five-game win streak, we kicked around the idea of blowing up the defense by trading Ryan McDonagh or Brady Skjei. The strong run over the last seven games has quenched some talks, at least for now, and the fact that GM Jeff Gorton didn’t pull the trigger on a Matt Duchene trade suggests that he’s committed to keeping Skjei as a building block.

“They wanted Duchene badly, but not enough to give up defenseman Brady Skjei, which was what Colorado was insisting he be part of the package,” Bob McKenzie told TSN 1050.

Duchene is now in Ottawa and, for his part, Skjei has proven Gorton right to walk away from the Duchene talk by elevating his play over the last couple of weeks. Like most Rangers, Skjei struggled early in the year, failing to use his legs to make plays and being guilty of excessive puck watching. But over the last seven games, dating back to the Arizona contest, Skjei’s play is markedly improved. He’s playing just over 21:00 per game and only failed to reach the 20:00 mark once. While the points aren’t there yet, he’s been much more competitive and more willing to use his skating ability to make plays.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Avalanche GM Joe Sakic wanted Skjei in a trade for Duchene; the end-to-end playmaking that Skjei offers is rare in the NHL and with New York’s obvious need at center, Sakic, evidently, tried to up Duchene’s potential value to the Blueshirts. As McKenzie noted on the NBC Sports Network broadcast of the Rangers vs. Bruins game last night:

“From the New York Rangers perspective, they were very much in on Matt Duchene, or they would have liked to be in on Matt Duchene with the Colorado Avalanche. But the Avalanche were absolutely insisting that Ranger defenseman Brady Skjei be part of any package for Duchene, and that was basically a non-starter for the New York Rangers.”

Now, Gorton’s refusal to include Skjei in a package for Duchene doesn’t mean that there isn’t an offer that couldn’t convince him to trade the young lefty. But the reality is that Duchene is going to be a free agent after next year—and an expensive one at that—making him more of a rental option for a contender. If the Rangers see themselves that way, then Skjei is going to be an integral part of a playoff run and flipping him for a Derek Stepan replacement doesn’t make much sense.

As a player, even though Duchene is more explosive than Stepan, his speed and skill haven’t proven him to be a much more productive. His 0.73 points per game (P/GP) is only marginally better than Stepan’s 0.70 P/GP. In that respect, replacing Stepan with Duchene is, effectively, a lateral move, and not one worth sacrificing a blue-chip defensive prospect or, perhaps sooner than later, your top-pairing defenseman.

Derek Stepan v. Matt Duchene

There’s no doubt that the Rangers need to improve their center depth if they’re going to be contenders this year and it’s unlikely, albeit too early to tell, that Boo Nieves or Filip Chytil is the answer on the third line. But if Duchene isn’t the guy to convince Gorton to move Skjei, it’s unlikely that it’s the type of deal we’ll see this year. That’s not to say there isn’t a package that could convince Gorton to pull the trigger, especially if the Rangers are sellers at the deadline, but it looks like Skjei has a secure spot on the Rangers’ blueline.

The reality is that Gorton isn’t going to commit to any trades that move the needle for the future at this point, with fewer than 20 games played. The Rangers simply aren’t deep enough into the season to know how the playoff picture might shake out or to know whether they’re going to be buyers or sellers. As McKenzie also noted during the broadcast:

“Really, the Rangers want to see how things unfold here. They’ve got Rick Nash on an expiring contract. They’ve got Nick Holden on an expiring contract. It may be that “the rebuild” continues if the Rangers realize they’re not good enough to be a strong playoff contender. Guys like Nash and Holden could be in play, but that’s all for later.”

Expiring veterans like Nash and Holden will be the first to go if the Rangers decide that this isn’t their year. Nash could almost certainly bring a first-round pick and a later-round pick for Holden would be a decent return for a rental defenseman. Perhaps someone like Sam Bennett, who is struggling with Calgary, could be an interesting option for the Rangers if they want to package a veteran to address their center depth.

But if Skjei continues to play high minutes and starts producing like he did last year, he’s going to be a key component of any rebuild or playoff run. So for now, though Duchene could prove to be a problematic opponent in the Eastern Conference playoff race, it looks like the Rangers were right not to deal for him, especially since they don’t yet know who they are, or perhaps more importantly, who they aren’t.

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