This year might have one of the best rookie crops in recent memory. Patrik Laine is threatening to be a 40-goal scorer. Actually, so is Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner might hit 60 points and William Nylander will approach 55. (Yes, Toronto is dominating the top of this list. No, I don’t think any of us are collectively prepared for the Maple Leafs to be relevant again.)
Someone who has been lost in transition has been New York Rangers rookie defenseman Brady Skjei.
Skjei was lifted into the spotlight after a successful five playoff games last year. It left Rangers fans watering at the mouth at the possibilities he brought to the table. He was penciled in to a top-four role, and when he struggled in the preseason (he had the flu) people might have mistook the air flowing out of the balloon.
Last summer, I thought Skjei was the biggest loser (outside of the organization) when the Rangers traded Keith Yandle. Not because I was down on Skjei’s abilities, but because I didn’t love the expectations the team was putting on him to be a “Yandle replacement.” Skjei always had the two-way, smooth transition tags attached to him, but the offense never followed. That’s not a knock, it’s just the way things panned out.
Thanks to Mike Reilly, Skjei never got real power play time in Minnesota. He was a great puck mover who didn’t put up points. Akin to Ryan McDonagh (although McDonagh was a point-producer in Wisconsin), Skjei played a very good first year of pro hockey in the AHL and developed into what he is today.
Right now, Skjei sits at 32 points. He might hit 40 before the year ends, but even if he doesn’t put up another point his success has been a big part of the Rangers’ this year. His emergence as a top-four defenseman (or at the very least a third-pairing rock solid presence) has done a lot for a Rangers team that’s been somewhat uneasy this year despite their record.
Skjei won’t get any first place votes. Laine and Matthews will fight among themselves for that as they should. The point of this article isn’t to claim Skjei deserves it over them; it’s just that he deserves more love than he’s probably going to get.
Skjei has done most of his work at even strength. See below for some fun stats about that:
Players that have fewer even strength assists than Brady Skjei: Jamie Benn, Toews, Tavares, Hedman, Kucherov, oh and this Sidney Crosby guy.— Brandon Cohen (@brandonco4) March 8, 2017
Brady Skjei leads all rookies in even strength assists.— Brandon Cohen (@brandonco4) March 8, 2017
Brady Skjei is tied for 16th in the entire NHL in even strength assists. Tied for 2nd among defensemen. Tied with Karlsson, behind Burns.— Brandon Cohen (@brandonco4) March 8, 2017
Yes, that’s Skjei being tied with Erik Karlsson in even strength assists.
On the podcast Wednesday night I talked about how I expected Skjei to get his offense as the guy who joined the rush and scored on odd-man rushes. That hasn’t happened, but not because he can’t do it (he’s an effortless skater) but because he’s been too busy making pinpoint passes for goals. In a way it’s very much like the way Kevin Hayes does his work.
I’ve been begging for Skjei to see more power playtime. Without Adam Clendening in the lineup, the burden has fallen to McDonagh to play those key moments. With Nick Holden and Skjei playing supporting roles. Skjei, as of this writing, is only averaging 1:15 a game with the man advantage.
You’d think his ability as a distributor would fit well with the likes of Mika Zibanejad, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller around. But the Rangers power play has a lot of pass first players (Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and sometimes Pavel Buchnevich as well) that I’m sure points have fallen away.
Would Skjei be a 50-point player with more power play reps? Maybe, we don’t know.
What we do know is his ceiling is high. Maybe even higher than we though when it comes to offense. That should excite you.
It should also get him some more Calder love, even if he doesn’t deserve to win it.