Brady Skjei had a subpar first season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2012-13. The 19-year-old, 6'2 defenseman who is blessed with other-worldly skating ability (seriously, when you hear some scouts talk about Skjei's skating it's like Chuck Norris crossed with the Most Interesting Man in the World: "When Brady skates, just the site of it causes strong men to weep, weaker men to hang their heads in shame and for every woman in the arena to dream about being 'Mrs Brady Skjei's Skating Ability'". You get the idea) lasted until the end of the first round because while he's solid defensively he is yet to develop an offensive game. And after watching him as a freshman, there's a legitimate question of whether the offense will ever come.
Skjei has played at the top level for his age group throughout his young career. Minnesota high school hockey as a freshman and sophomore, the prestigious US National Development Training Program in Ann Arbor as a junior and senior (including being named co-captain of the U17 squad), and for the University of Minnesota last season as an 18 year old. He's responsible in the defensive zone, plays pretty well in terms of his positioning, doesn't take many risks and is strong on the puck.
Yet besides his sophomore year in high school when he had 11 goals and 19 assists in 30 regular season games, he just hasn't put up points. His first year with the US NDTP he put up 5 goals and 14 assists in 55 games, and saw his production drop in his second season with them with just 4 goals and 19 assists in 60 games. He fell to the Rangers in the 2012 draft because of the lingering question: Was that last season with the US NDTP just an off year, or is that who he really is?
At only 19 I'm not ready to say Skjei won't reach his potential, but his first year in a Gopher sweater ceratinly wasn't convincing. He skated in the top 3 D pairings all season, appeared in 36 of a possible 40 games with a +11 rating...and tallied three points. Unfortunately, not a typo -- one goal and two assists in 36 regular and post-season games.
The only Minnesota players with fewer points were the goalie and two freshmen forwards who played in a combined 12 games. Sure, he didn't get a ton of power play minutes because the Gopher's like to play a sort of 1-3-1 power play formation with only one defenseman on the first unit, but three points for an entire season? Despite his extensive international experience and success, he was also passed over for the USA World Juniors roster that won gold last year.
To state the obvious, this is a big, big year for Skjei's development. Minnesota lost three defensemen from their top six to the pros so there's definitely playing time available. However, Minnesota is also bringing in three talented freshmen defensemen to help replace them- and all three (Tommy Vannelli 2nd round to the Blues, Michael Brodzinski 5th round to San Jose, and Jake Bischoff 7th round to the Isles in 2012) were drafted and are highly touted. Skjei has better physical tools than any defenseman on the team, so if he plays up to potential, he'll have all the playing and development time he wants. He does still have a year of eligibility remaining for Canadian junior hockey (the Regina Pats of the WHL hold his rights), and there's been whispers he could go that route if he doesn't get playing time, but hopefully it doesn't come to that.
Bottom line, Skjei controls his destiny here and it's on him to become the player we're all waiting for. At worst, his floor is a 5th or 6th defenseman in the NHL, and he could likely play that role for a long time. If he doesn't fulfill his potential he reminds me of another former Gopher, Keith Ballard, who has lasted eight seasons in the league and is very likely to find his fourth team this summer once Vancouver waives him. Still, if paid right (not the $4.2 million per year Ballard's paid now), that's a serviceable NHL defenseman.
Of course, you don't spend a first round pick on a guy who figures to be serviceable, but maybe this is what he is. With his size at 6'2 and 200+ pounds you expect him to be physical, laying out forwards as they skate into the zone, crunching guys into the glass, or clearing them out from the front of the net. But he just doesn't have that nastiness to his game. When you watch him skate or handle the puck at times, you think he could be another Scott Neidermeyer or Paul Coffey weaving through all five opponents on his way to a highlight reel goal or assist. But we're yet to really see either of those things develop in his game, and this season should be a good barometer of whether we ever will.
I'll throw my own bit on analysis in on this down here. I agree with Jeff that this year is a massive year to see where Skjei is in terms of his development. But I still maintain that as a freshman playing on one of the best teams in the NCAA, seeing top-three minutes on defense is a really good sign.
Yes, the offense has to get better. There's no question about that. I just don't want to draw too much from one year. And, as Jeff noted, the kid has a wealth of potential.
Thoughts on this guys?