Brad Shakes. Baby Skjei. Whatever you call him, the young defender playing his first full NHL season was the brightest spot on a blue line plagued by inconsistency, incompetence, and the inexplicable whims of Alain Vigneault.
Regular followers of the blog and the podcast enjoyed watching Joe go from lamenting — loudly — the Yandle-mantle placed on the young lefty’s shoulders, to watching in wonder — also loudly — as Skjei wore it, and even outgrew it. By the end of the season, 76’s even-strength assists put him third in the league, behind only Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.
Yandle? Yandle who?
Statline (5v5): 5 goals, 23 assists, 28 points in 80 games played, 50.5 CF%*
Unbelievably, Skjei nearly matched his regular-season goal total in just two rounds of the playoffs, notching 4 at even strength even while getting shamefully little ice time compared to CERTAIN OTHER PEOPLE. As Mike points out, he was exceptional in his second postseason. All year long, Skjei used his speed and kept his emotions in check — which can’t have been easy on OR off the ice: AV claimed to lose track of him on the bench, and teammate Kevin Hayes gave him a skate in the cheek, resulting in an injury he described “as if someone had cut a second pair of lips into the side of my face.” (Excuse me while I pass out — and seriously, do the Rangers hold the record for attempts to behead each other?)
Through it all, Skjei somehow not only played but developed his own game, and was rewarded late in the season when the Blueshirts acquired Brendan Smith; the pair wreaked havoc in the postseason (see the chart here). Even the New York Times, which tends to treat hockey as some odd anthropological aberration, took notice.
What makes Skjei so good, so soon? He’s a fantastic skater who rarely made the same rookie mistakes twice. He can use his big body and his brain at the same time. His hockey sense was no doubt honed by having to master the major mind-f*** of Vigneault’s deployment decisions, which over the course of the season ranged from whimsical to downright perverse.
Even so, when it comes to Skjei, the news is all good. He’s 23. He’s healthy. And he’s only going to get better.
*All stats at even strength in the regular season, courtesy of Corsica.com via @hayyshayy