Expectations for the play of Brady Skjei

Setting expectations for the most important defenseman on the roster

We are 10 games into the first year of Brady Skjei’s six-year, $31.5 million contract, which also happens to coincide with the first 10 games of David Quinn’s tenure as the head coach of the New York Rangers. It’s no secret that the Rangers defense as a whole has been just about as bad as many feared it would be, if not worse. But how has the team’s only defender signed past the 2020-21 season looked on that blue line?

Thus far Quinn is giving Brady Skjei more ice time than anyone else on the team — which is not altogether surprising considering Skjei’s contract and his perceived value to the team and its future. Through 10 games Skjei is averaging 23:05 TOI/GP, which is even more ice time than he was seeing in the last two months of the 2017-18 season. However, Quinn has barely been using him on the power play. In fact, the only Rangers defensemen seeing less ice time on the man advantage are Adam McQuaid and Fredrik Claesson. So Skjei has been asked to play a ton of minutes at evens and while the Rangers have been shorthanded.

Through 10 games and in nearly 192 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, Skjei has just one point — a secondary assist — in his third season with the New York Rangers. That’s not the most encouraging stat line for a player who had 39 points in his rookie season two years ago. However, Skjei has had made some great plays with the puck this year in all situations, including his unforgettable overtime goal against the San Jose Sharks.

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen Skjei make a few less-than-great plays early this season.

So, going by the optics, you could say that it’s been something of a mixed bag for Skjei thus far. But when we take a closer look at Skjei’s numbers, its clear that things are trending towards the positive. It starts with looking at how the team is with Skjei on the ice; the Rangers are taking about 46 percent of the shot share with Skjei, which is just below average relative to the team, but they’re expected to score a higher percentage of the goals share (52 percent that’s plus-3.97 relative to the team).

Skjei has been a positive influence on the Rangers’ defense, despite being held back by his most frequent partner. He has shared the most ice with Adam McQuaid (89:49 at 5-on-5) this year, but recently he’s been seeing a lot more time with Neal Pionk (58:22 at 5-on-5). According to NaturalStatTrick.com, and keeping sample size in mind, Skjei has a 41.51 CF% with McQuad and a 51.75 CF% without him as his partner. Their relative xGF% together is -4.42, which isn’t nearly as bad as the pairing of Pionk and Marc Staal (-20.08 xGF%), but it’s still rough.

To get a better idea of just how valuable Skjei has been to the Rangers’ blue line, take a look at this visualization from Micah Blake McCurdy.

The numbers tell us what we all already know: Skjei is the most valuable defenseman on the team. Per Corsica, Skjei’s xG+/- (expected goal differential at 5-on-5) is 0.73, which makes him one of just three Rangers defensemen who are in the green in that category. Considering how much time he has spent on the ice with McQuaid, that’s a pretty impressive feat. Another interesting note is that, per Evolving-Hockey.com, Skjei’s 2.4 GAR (ES) is the best on the Rangers. He also has one of the best GAR (ES) among all NHL defensemen.

Skjei has been guilty of making some pretty conspicuous bad plays in the first chapter of the season, but it’s important to note that he’s under a ton of pressure. He’s like the lead sled dog trying to pull the rest of his inadequate pack through a blizzard. So much is expected of him and there are so many eyes on him that it is hard to realize how well he is doing in the face of so much adversity. Skjei is so valuable that it’s downright scary to think what might happen to this already ramshackle and porous defense if he were to go down with an injury.

These are the kind of numbers we were expecting coming into this year because of the lack of quality on the Rangers’ blue line. Kevin Shattenkirk is a very valuable defenseman, but he’s a power play specialist and a puck-mover — he’s never been known for his acumen in the d-zone. The quality of Skjei’s potential partners on the right side after Shattenkirk only goes downhill. And, unfortunately, that likely isn’t going to change any time soon.

Now that Ryan McDonagh is gone, it’s Skjei’s turn to be the defenseman that the Rangers ask too much of. His numbers — both counting stats and possession metrics — are going to be dragged down this year just like they were at the tail end of last year. That will make it all too easy to rely too much on the eye test with Skjei. And that, and his new contract, could make him an easy scapegoat on a below-average defense that looks more exposed than a tortoise stuck on its back under the Rangers new coaching staff.

The best thing that Skjei can do this year is to hone his skills and develop his game playing against the best players on the opposition. We should pay particularly close attention to how often he is caught trying to do too much and play outside of his game.

At his core, Skjei is a big, smooth-skating two-way defender. He has the skills to be a staple on this team’s top pair on the other side of this rebuild, but Skjei might need some more quality around him before he consistently looks like that kind of player.

All data from Corsica.Hockey unless otherwise noted, salary cap data courtesy of CapFriendly.com