New York Rangers prospect Brady Skjei is quietly making a big impact on the ice for Team USA.
He may only have one assist, but his performance is about much more than offensive stats. Skjei’s been a solid, steady presence on the blueline for the red, white, and blue, especially in his own zone.
“Out here, I’m definitely a shut down guy,” Skjei said. “I’m going to shut down the other team’s top players and use my speed and my strength to eliminate them when I can. That’s what they’re looking for me to do — just try to keep it simple and get the puck up the ice.”
Team USA is undefeated in the tournament, going 3-0 with wins over Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. In those wins, they’ve outscored their opponents 19-4. Skjei has been on the ice for just one even-strength goal against. He talked about the secret to their success:
“I think it’s just the style that we play. We play a hard-nosed type of game and we’ll grind you out and work hard down low and make plays off of that. We’ve got a really hard working team and we play our system really well. There’s no individuals, which is nice. It’s all about the team.”
One of Skjei’s defining moments came early in Team USA’s game against Germany. Less than two minutes into the first period, the US team took overlapping penalties, giving the Germans a 5-on-3 for 1:23. Skjei responded by putting on a penalty-killing clinic in front of his own net. He used his stick to block passing lanes, positioned his body to shield the front of the net, cleared the crease, and blocked shots.
“[The penalty kill] was a huge part of the game and a huge opportunity. To be down 5-on-3 in general is really hard, but especially at the start of the game. You don’t want to get off on the wrong foot. I think it might have helped us out a little bit. Killing it off gave us a little confidence. That was a big part of the game.”
Less than five minutes later, Team USA opened the scoring and never looked back, en route to an 8-0 victory.
“Special teams are a huge part of this kind of tournament, and [against Germany on Sunday] we showed how strong we are on the power play and on the penalty kill,” Team USA forward Nicolas Kerdiles told NHL.com. “We have a lot of momentum and confidence.”
This isn’t Skjei’s first time representing the US overseas. He helped the 2012 Under-18 Team claim their fourth-consecutive gold medal, posting a tournament-high +10 in six games.
Skjei was one of the final cuts from last year’s gold-medal winning World Juniors team. Being left off the team proved to be a motivator for Skjei. “Last year was tough,” Skjei said. “[Missing the cut] makes you realize how bad you want to be on this team.”
“He really wanted to be a part of [the 2013 World Juniors team],” said Rangers Director of Player Personnel Gordie Clark, “but that has motivated him to make sure he’d be a part of the team this year, and part of that was making sure he was an even better and stronger player at Minnesota, too. What helps him is that he is an even-keeled guy. He understood and respected the decision of Team USA, and then set out to make sure he’d be a part of this year’s team.”
Skjei echoed Clark’s comments. “I think I understand more of what’s expected and what I need to do. I need to be a puck moving defenseman and a guy that can shut down the other team’s top lines, Skjei said. “I’m a lot more confident with the puck. I just need to keep it simple, make smart plays and use my skating to my advantage.”
“Brady is definitely stronger, you can see it out on the ice,” said Clark. “He is headed in the right direction for sure.”
Blueshirt Banter’s Alex Nunn also weighed in on the sophomore Gopher’s World Juniors performance so far:
Skjei’s skating has predictably been his strength so far and his defensive game, for the most part at least, has been solid. He’s not a guy you’ll notice much in a blowout win but he’s keeping it simple out there and doing a job.
Playing a smart game is easier when it’s in a familiar system. Skjei’s very familiar with this one. Team USA’s head coach, Don Lucia, is also Skjei’s coach at the University of Minnesota. His approach, style, and drills are exactly the same.
“Same old, same coach, same system, same everything. Not much has changed,” said Skjei. “In practice I know the drills and can help communicate that with everybody,” Skjei said. “I the know way [Lucia] likes to play — hard and smart. I think I can relay things to players and kind of be a messenger.”
Off the Ice
While there’s a lot of hockey being played, there’s also plenty of downtime. Skjei and his teammates have been busy playing cards and checking out the local shops and establishments in Malmo.
“It’s awesome. Sweden’s really nice,” Skjei said. “It’s a great country, and the hockey is unbelievable. We’re off to a good start and it’s getting more amped up as we keep going. It’s fun.”
The one thing he’s missing? Home cooking – or at least something like it. When we spoke, he’d just wrapped up a team dinner at, of all places, TGI Fridays. “Finally,” he said, “some American food. “
Merry Christmas from Malmo
With the World Juniors taking place during the holidays, Team USA spent Christmas in Malmo. “[Christmas] was cool; it was a lot of fun,” Skjei said. “We celebrated as a team, had a little gift exchange, and then walked around a little bit. Sweden’s a really cool country at night, especially around Christmas time with all the lights. It was definitely a cool experience — one that I probably won’t have again.”
Brady Skjei and Harry Styles?
On a lighter note, fans may have caught a particularly notable ‘fun fact’ about Skjei on the NHL Network broadcast. Apparently, some people think the 19-year-old blueliner bears a striking resemblance to a certain well-coiffed member of One Direction.
“I thought it was a joke,” Skjei said. “We fill out those things and I really didn’t think it mattered that much. I was sitting next to [University of Minnesota defenseman] Mike Reilly when I was filling that out and he was like, “Put ‘Harry Styles’ for that one.” I didn’t think it was going to be on national TV. Then I saw it. Kind of funny, got a few tweets about that.”
Of course, I hear he’s a big fan.
Up Next: Canada
Team USA’s three wins have them atop the the Group A pool; they’re guaranteed to move on to the quarterfinal. They close out the preliminary portion of the tournament on Tuesday against Team Canada. Will Team USA be doing anything different to prepare for a much tougher opponent in their neighbors to the north?
“We’re not changing our game at all; we’re sticking with the way we play. I think the way we play is going to make it tough for them. Obviously they have a lot of skill and a lot of good players. It should be a really good game. We’ll stick with the way we’ve played the last couple games and see how it goes.”
The quarterfinals begin on Thursday. Team USA will be there.
(Google Maps image via Street View)