New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei was enjoying the offseason at home in Minnesota one night in June when he got a FaceTime call from one of his best friends.
It was his old buddy Jacob.
“He just said, ‘What’s up, teammate?'” Skjei said. “We were both really pumped on the call – a few yells of ‘Let’s go!’ We were both thrilled.”
This wasn’t just any friend, of course. It was Jacob Trouba, the stud defenseman formerly of the Winnipeg Jets who had just been traded to the Rangers for a first-round draft pick and defenseman Neal Pionk.
From both personal and professional perspectives, the reasons for Skjei’s excitement was obvious. He and Trouba met when they were sophomores in high school and trying out for the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., developing their friendship while playing there together from 2010-12.
Skjei was also fired up over his team adding a top-pair right-handed defenseman who excels on the power play and posted a career-high 50 points last season.
It’s possible, though, that the men who run Skjei and Trouba’s team were even more fired up.
Amidst a very exciting rebuilding project, there is unquestionably some hand-wringing within the organization over the status of Skjei, who hasn’t done nearly enough to justify the front office’s decision to give him a six-year contract in July 2018 that carries a $5.25 million salary cap hit.
Skjei’s Big Contract Looking Ill-Advised so Far
The Rangers chose to do so even after Skjei suffered a major dropoff in 2017-18, his second full season. He posted a minus-27 rating and recorded 25 points, 14 fewer than his second season of 2016-17.
In an attempt to save money long-term by betting on Skjei’s potential, the Blueshirts opted to view 2017-18 as an aberration and focus on 2016-17. That’s when the 28th overall draft pick in 2012 looked every bit the part of the modern NHL defenseman – big, mobile, competent offensively and tough in his own end. Skjei had five goals and 34 assists with a plus-11 rating.
The worry now, though, is that Skjei has enough time under his belt for general manager Jeff Gorton – who gave him the big extension – to wonder whether that strong second season will prove to be the aberration.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder was better last season than the previous one, with his rating improving to minus-4 while scoring a career-high eight goals. His point total, however, was the same as it was in 2017-18, and while his overall performance was decent, he again failed to duplicate the impact he made during that tantalizing 2016-17.
Skjei’s confidence level and effectiveness, though, did seem to rise when coach David Quinn paired him with now-departed veteran Adam McQuaid last season, suggesting that the right blue line partner might be the key to unlocking the next phase of Skjei’s development.
That just might be where his friend Jacob comes in.
Quinn seems sure to at least try Skjei and Trouba together, starting with the preseason. Trouba is more than just Skjei’s friend – he’s a nearly identical player who has delivered the consistent effectiveness in his six seasons that Skjei has failed to put forth in his three full campaigns.
McQuaid is gone, and Skjei struggled last season when paired with still-unsigned Tony DeAngelo. That leaves Adam Fox, the highly-touted Harvard product who has yet to play an NHL game, as the other option as Skjei’s right-side partner.
Skjei-Trouba Pairing Could be No. 1 for Rangers
Perhaps that pairing might work, but the logical initial attempt at finding the right combination is to put Skjei and Trouba together and see if they are the No. 1 defensive pairing the Rangers have sought for years.
“He’s the kind of guy who can play in all situations – he can play on the power play, play on the penalty kill, play against other teams’ top lines,” Skjei said of Trouba. “He’s just all-around a really good defenseman, and he’s been that same way for forever since I’ve known him. He’s been the kind of guy who can do it all. Definitely a huge pickup for us.”
Those all-around skills earned Trouba a seven-year, $56 million contract from the Rangers after being acquired.
Management probably didn’t factor in the friendship when acquiring the highly sought-after Trouba for what looks like a steal in the 20th overall pick – originally Winnipeg’s – and Pionk. The added benefit of Skjei possibly finding his form – or, finding Trouba’s form – as defense partners would be immeasurable. “Two” top-pair defensemen for the price of one?
A key area that’s been lacking in Skjei’s game – and may be holding him back – is edge, leading to questions of whether the big left-hander is physical enough to rise to the level of unquestioned top-pair D-man. There, again, is where his pal could make the difference.
Trouba plays a considerably more jagged game than Skjei, his aggressive style and willingness to throw his 6-foot-3, 202-pound frame around playing a key role in his ascendance with the Jets. Trouba’s 58 penalty minutes last season was the second-highest total of his career, and he’ll drop the gloves when needed on behalf of himself or teammates.
In contrast, Skjei reached a career high of 44 PIMs last season with the help of his only NHL fight Feb. 3, matching up with the Nashville Predators’ Ryan Johansen and not exactly distinguishing himself. Skjei was attempting to stand up for teammate Jimmy Vesey after he was hit by Filip Forsberg.
The Rangers don’t expect and certainly wouldn’t want Skjei to morph into a fighter. Regaining his level of three seasons ago, however, might require him to exhibit the kind of bite Trouba does.
Rangers Hoping Trouba Helps Skjei Find His Form
Hoping that Trouba’s addition will help the light go back on for Skjei could end up being a pipe dream. Still, Gorton will have his fingers crossed that Trouba can help, having given Skjei a big contract with the hopes he’d one day handle top-pair defensive duties.
The Rangers have a number of high-end prospects ready to push for time on the left side of the blue line this season and in the coming years, including the impressive K’Andre Miller, the 22nd pick in the 2018 draft who won’t join the team this season.
The Blueshirts, though, have committed long-term to the 25-year-old Skjei. Making it work is a necessity, as this rising organization can ill afford to have tied up significant salary – and a spot on defense – in a mediocre player for five more seasons.
Perhaps playing with and being around a long-time friend can be the decisive factor for the Rangers’ top pick in the 2012 Draft, for whom the club still harbors high expectations. For the Blueshirts’ sake, they had better hope so.