Rangers’ Skjei Enjoying Stellar Rookie Season

Coming into this season, the biggest questions for the New York Rangers resided on their blue line. Would the group be consistent enough to help the club seriously contend? Would Dan Girardi and/or Marc Staal bounce back from underwhelming performances last season? Would Kevin Klein’s strong play continue or would he regress? Would Brady Skjei be effective in his rookie season?

While not all of the answers to these questions have been positive for the Rangers to this point, the answer to the last one is a resounding “yes.”

Skjei Steady

Skjei appeared in seven regular-season games for the Rangers last year as well as all five of their playoff contests. He did not look to be out of place during that time. Between that and his overall promise and potential—he was the Rangers’ most recent first-round pick, taken 28th overall in 2012 out of the University of Minnesota—it was essentially a foregone conclusion that Skjei would make the Rangers’ roster as a lineup regular this season. Even so, as with any rookie, a consistently strong performance level over a full NHL season was far from a certainty.

About six months later, Skjei has clearly emerged as one of the Rangers’ top defenseman. Outside of captain Ryan McDonagh, Skjei has been the team’s best all-around blueliner. His mobility and strong decision-making skills allow him to skate his way out of trouble and make good outlet passes. He also maintains a tight gap on opposing players, impeding their zone entries.

Skjei’s advanced metrics also paint a good picture. His five-on-five Corsi-for percentage of 50.8 percent is second-best among Rangers defensemen who have played at least 20 games (Adam Clendening has the best mark with a fantastic 57.1 percent). He is also a great shot suppressor, as his Corsi-against relative to teammates per 60 minutes is -6.21 again second to Clendening, who has often been Skjei’s partner when he has played. This means that opponents generate fewer shot attempts (about six fewer per 60 minutes) when Skjei is on the ice compared to other Rangers players.

Unforeseen Offense

The biggest surprise with Skjei, though, has been his offensive production. His skating and defensive skills were his known strengths coming into the season. Latent offensive abilities were there, but the expectation that they would manifest themselves so quickly and with such regularity seemed unrealistic.

Through 75 games, Skjei has 35 points (five goals and 30 assists). That is the second-highest total among Rangers blueliners behind McDonagh’s 40 points (five goals and 35 assists). It is also the second-highest among rookie defensemen, trailing only Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who has 47 points (11 goals and 36 assists).

What makes Skjei’s point total more impressive is that he has done most of his damage at even strength and with fairly limited ice time (Skjei’s overall points-per-60-minutes mark of 1.63 is 15th-best among all defensemen in the entire league). While he has gotten more power-play time recently, he hasn’t gotten a lot over the course of the season. Only five of his points have come with the man-advantage, meaning he has 30 points at even strength or in shorthanded situations. McDonagh’s 40 points have been aided by strong power-play production (14 points). The same is true for Werenski, who has accumulated nearly half (21) of his 47 points on the power play.

When the Rangers lost offensive-minded defenseman Keith Yandle to free agency (technically to a trade, but only because of his pending UFA status), the big question was whether they would be able to replace his offense from the back end.

Enter Skjei. The rookie might not be the power-play quarterback that Yandle is, and he might not possess the natural vision and offensive gifts of Yandle, but the bottom line is that overall, Skjei has produced essentially the same amount of offense. This season, Yandle has 37 points (five goals, 32 assists) – just two more than Skjei. Skjei is not as flashy as Yandle, but the end result has been pretty much the same this season and has validated general manager Jeff Gorton’s comments from late last season, which seemed like a reach at the time.

While 19 of Skjei’s 30 assists have been secondary, that doesn’t take much away from his accomplishments. In fact, it points to his ability to make strong outlet passes to start the rush. Thus, his defensive skill set and his offensive production are not mutually exclusive, highlighting his strong all-around game.

Skjei a Top Rookie

While rookies Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are absorbing most of the Calder Trophy attention—and deservedly so—Skjei’s rookie campaign deserves some level of recognition. He has excelled in the game’s most difficult position to learn: defense. Furthermore, he has done so for a team that desperately needed help in that area because of struggling veterans.

Between Matthews, Laine, and other strong rookies like Werenski, William Nylander, Mitchell Marner, Sebastian Aho, and Matthew Tkachuk, Skjei, who just turned 23, likely will not receive any serious consideration for the Calder Trophy. That, however, takes nothing away from the year he has had and what he has meant to the Rangers.