When Should the Rangers Pay Skjei?

Brady Skjei’s strong rookie season inspired confidence in the New York Rangers’ defensive future. Although limited to a third-pair role, the 23-year-old defenseman made his presence known throughout the regular season and the postseason.

The former first-round pick of the Rangers is in the final year of his three-year, $2.775 million entry-level contract (ELC). While the Rangers do not have to extend him until his contract expires, it’s in their best interest to start examining their options and considering their future with the budding defenseman.

Over the last two years, Skjei’s played 87 regular season games. This past season, he scored 39 points (five goals, 34 assists) in 80 games. At 5-on-5 this season, he scored 28 of those points, translating to 1.42 per 60, which led the defense. He added 138 hits, 14 takeaways, and 56 blocked shots. His possession numbers highlighted by his 50.5 Corsi for per 60 that was above average relative to his teammates (plus-3.9 relative CF%) and a 50.66 expected goals for percentage. Most of this was accomplished on the third-pair, with Kevin Klein, although he made appearances a number of other combinations throughout the season.

Skjei thrived in the playoffs, racking up five points in 12 games (four goals, one assist). He was paired with deadline acquisition Brendan Smith, and together they were the Rangers’ best pair in the postseason.

After an encouraging rookie season, general manager Jeff Gorton referred to Skjei as a top defenseman on the left side, behind Ryan McDonagh – meaning he should have the expanded role he deserves on the second pair. The only risk of having an expanded role, though, is that Skjei might regress when faced with greater challenges than he was last season. However, playing alongside Smith and continuing to develop their postseason chemistry, or free agent acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk, should elevate, and if necessary, stabilize his game.

At the conclusion of next season, the Rangers will have the task of extended a number of restricted free agents – including J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, and Skjei. Hayes and Miller could be the most expensive of the bunch, as both received short-term bridge-deals after their ELCs expired instead of long-term extensions. Bridge-deals are often “show me” deals that give a player the opportunity to prove why they deserve a substantial contract; their next contracts often become more costly when a player proves himself, but also benefits from increasing market costs.

With that in mind, the Rangers have to be strategic with Skjei. He’s young, talented, and projected to develop into a game-changer. If the Rangers intend to bridge-deal him first, it’s going to create cap problems in the future, like they’re currently facing with Hayes and Miller – making a long-term contract a more cost effective option.

Along with Skjei (28th overall), there were a number of talented defensemen drafted in 2012. Ryan Murray was drafted second overall by Columbus, Hampus Lindholm sixth overall by Anaheim, Jacob Trouba ninth overall by Winnipeg, Olli Maatta 22nd overall by Pittsburgh, Shayne Gostisbehere 78th overall by Philadelphia, Colton Parayko 86th overall by St. Louis, and Jaccob Slavin 120th overall by Carolina.

Some of these players are far more experienced in the NHL than Skjei and have emerged as top player for their teams. Skjei has played the fewest NHL games of this group, only having just completed his rookie season.

All of these defensemen, other than Skjei, have extended past their ELCs already. Murray, Trouba, and Dumba all led with bridge-deals, while, Lindholm, Maatta, Gostisbehere, Parayko, and Slavin all were extended to long-term contracts.

Short-term contracts can become long-term issues, and Trouba best represents that of that group of defensemen. When Trouba was due for an extension, he already had demonstrated how valuable he was to the Jets, yet they insisted on bridge-dealing him for two years, $6 million. The negotiations between Trouba and Winnipeg clearly had their challenges, which could set themselves up for future issues when his contract expires at the end of this year. Now that he’s become more of an integral piece of his team, that new extension could become far more costly than it would have had they signed him long-term originally – and hopefully inspires the Rangers to avoid these costs with Skjei.

Long-term contracts come at a lower cost than they would after a bridge deal, since these players are typically less established right after their ELC. It also ensures the contract runs through the player’s prime at a reasonable price, and that the team is paying for a future performance from their player and not a past performance – which should be a priority when building a contract.

There are a number of ways a team can pursue a long-term contract with a restricted free agent. With Parayko, the Blues almost needed an arbitration hearing to come to an agreement, which could have soured relations. Ultimately, he signed to a five-year contract that carries a $5.5 million cap hit. This isn’t the ideal route the Rangers should follow either, as there’s too much risk dragging out negotiations – between damaging relations between team and player, offer sheets, and an unfavorable outcome from arbitration.

A long-term extension that could serve as a model for Skjei’s next contract is Gostisbehere’s, who was re-signed early in the 2017 offseason. Accomplishing it early in the offseason prioritizes this signing and helps influence the rest of the team’s offseason plan before free agency. Also, by signing him that early, there’s less of a concern of another player contract skewing the market and inflating costs. If the Rangers decide to wait to extend Skjei until his contract expires, then they should try to re-sign him early in the offseason and take note of the value of the contract Gostisbehere signed as well, as it’s a team-friendly contract for a player of his caliber.

Then, there’s the option of an extension before an ELC expires, like Slavin in Carolina. Slavin’s already shown how talented he is in 145 career regular season games, so instead of waiting for him to further emerge, they decided to extend him to a seven-year contract that carries a $5.3 million cap hit a year before his ELC was set to expire. The Rangers’ clock is ticking to carry that out for Skjei before the season starts, but they can still extend him mid-season before his contract runs out – which gives them the opportunity to see how he handles the expanded role and alleviate the pressure of a contract year before the most important part of the season.

If the defensemen from his draft year don’t provide the Rangers with enough contract models, there is an in-house option they could look at: Ryan McDonagh. He was originally drafted by the Montreal Canadiens 12th overall in 2007, but has only played in a Rangers’ sweater, as his rights were traded to New York in 2009. After a 40-game rookie season with the Rangers, McDonagh found his place on their top defensive pair in his sophomore season.

Since McDonagh’s play was so strong early in his career, he was signed to a six-year, $28.2 contract that includes a modified no-trade clause in the final three seasons after his ELC expired. Since signing that contract, McDonagh’s value has exceeded his contract, making it such a favorable deal for the Rangers. Although he isn’t as experienced as McDonagh was, his abilities shine through his game like McDonagh’s did, which could inspire the Rangers to extend a similar contract.

Signing a player to a contract after an ELC expires has its risks for player and team. For Skjei, it’s risky to extend long-term because his on-ice value could surpass what he’s paid, similar to McDonagh. For the Rangers, if Skjei doesn’t repeat his rookie season and only regresses, they have a long-term contract weighing on their cap.

In order to be as cost effective as possible, particularly if Skjei continues to grow and exceed expectations, an extension should come sooner rather than later to avoid high costs or be influenced by the free agent market. For the Rangers’ long-term future it’s imperative that they follow the contract models set by Gostisbehere, Slavin, and McDonagh, rather than Murray, Trouba, and Dumba, or risk the salary cap progress they made this offseason.