With all the talk about the Rangers’ high-scoring rookie forwards this season, we have yet to give a whole post worth of love to that other semi-new kid. Brady Skjei recently tied Brian Leetch’s six-game point streak from 88-89 and he’s leading NHL rookies in assists. Skjei has been the year’s most pleasant surprise whose name doesn’t start with “G” and end with “er.” (Joe note: Beth is only writing his name this way because she still doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Proof is somewhere in here.)
Aside from putting up points and assisting on the power play, Skjei has now successfully played both sides of the blue line. But the kid is more than versatile and responsible. He’s got great vision — for example, the outlet pass he threaded through the Flames (literally) to Mika Zibanejad on Saturday night evolved into Kreider and Stepan’s perfect tic-tac-goal. Skjei is also clearly comfortable carrying the puck in to the zone and playing the Rangers’ currently stupid-pretty passing game. Should things go the other way, his wheels get him back to beat the forecheck. He’s a spectacular skater, and he’s been a joy to watch, especially at the end of the ice where some of us still cover our eyes and hope for the best.
We knew Skjei had the tools, but I’m not sure anybody predicted how quickly he’d figure out how to use them. When Brett Cyrgalis suggested over the summer that the rookie with 7 NHL games under his belt might fill the hole left by Keith Yandle, most of us snorted, and Joe had a conniption. That’s still a stretch — just not as much of one as it seemed back in September. Skjei is already in a top four role, showing a promising, if still puppyish, combination not only of Yandle’s mobility but also of Ryan McDonagh’s puck movement and work on the blue line. A few weeks ago on the podcast I called him — forgive me — competent, but Skjei is more than that. He’s playing with confidence, absorbing experience from his senior partners, and those assists prove how well he’s anticipating the moves of his speedy teammates up front.
They clearly appreciate it. Last night against the Canucks, Kevin Hayes passed up a chance for a hat trick and tried to set up Skjei for his first NHL goal instead. It didn’t work, but it was a nice idea. Skjei added another assist to his collection, but has yet to put the puck in the net. Then again, neither has Ryan McDonagh. (Meanwhile, Nick Holden scored his second last night. We live in interesting times.)
On a team that has disappointed/infuriated many fans consistently in regard to defense (and I won’t even say the M-word), Skjei is a badly-needed injection of youth and optimism. He’s still new enough that the team can’t lose him to expansion (he is auto-protected), which is good, because he’s rapidly making himself valuable, if not yet indispensable. I’ve fretted pretty consistently about what might happen if Ryan McDonagh got hurt. That remains a concern, of course, but an injury to Baby Skjei right now would be a pretty big setback, too.
Maybe I’m gushing too much, too soon. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’d like to see Brady throw that 6’3’’ body around a little more, but he’s clearly focused on developing the qualities the team needs most, and that’s the right call. Alain Vigneault obviously has faith in Brady Skjei, and — mirabile dictu — so do I.
P.S. Joe censored my title. I wanted “Hey Hey Skjei.”