Like many Americans, Brady Skjei was easing into the long Memorial Day weekend: sleeping in, playing some golf with buddies in his hometown of Lakeville, Minnesota, and planning the rest of the summer, which in his case, will be an important one.
The 22-year-old Rangers defenseman, a regular for the U.S. national team which played in the IIHF World Championships which ended last weekend in Russia, will recharge at the family cabin in the Brainerd Lakes region, two hours north, then return to the business of pro hockey, where his bright future awaits.
A lot is riding on the swift-skating Skjei, who the Rangers need to jump right into their starting defense pairings this October, and indicative of that is his off-season schedule.
“I talked to Step, and I’ll be training with him and Mac in Edina,” Skjei said in a phone conversation on Friday, referring to fellow Minnesota natives Derek Stepan and Blueshirts captain Ryan McDonagh. “That’ll be different; I worked out last summer at the U.”
The U, or the University of Minnesota, is where the 6-foot-3 Skjei (pronounced Shea) — who is the most recent first-round draft choice by the Rangers (2012) — played for three years before playing 68 games last season in AHL Hartford, seven games for the Rangers and then five playoffs games, where he was one of the positives in the opening series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We first saw him with the Under-17 U.S. team and said ‘Who is this kid? He’s flying’, so we had a bead on him early,” recalled Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ director of player personnel. “We had him slotted (in the draft) a little higher than some other teams, but at that time we had no defensemen coming to replenish the system. We had forwards and had goalie prospects who could be ready in four or five years. He was in the category of (Chris) Kreider and Mac, a physical specimen. He works out like crazy in the summers, and he had experience in the AHL, NHL and around the world with the U.S. National Development Program.”
After signing a three-year contract with the Blueshirts in April 2015, Skjei initially joined the Wolf Pack for the Calder Cup playoffs.
“I played until June 1 with them last spring, but this year felt a lot longer,’’ he said, mostly because of the travel to Russia, where he played ten games, scored a goal and logged the fourth most minutes on defense. The fourth-place finish was a little disappointing, after upsetting the Czech Republic and having a 3-2, second-period lead before losing to favored Canada. “But no one expected us to do anything and we were one goal away from a medal. Great experience and a fun group.”
For Skjei, the pedigree is there. In two years at Lakeville North High School, before joining the U.S. program in Ann Arbor, he also played quarterback, but hockey was in his blood and he committed to Minnesota, where his grandfather, Stan, and uncle, Brett Sadek, played football. Another uncle is Barry Karn, a power-skating instructor who has worked with five NHL teams.
“There wasn’t any doubt that Brady had skill,” said Don Lucia, who has coached the Gophers for 16 years. “Able to get the puck, make a good first pass, and if he skated himself out of a play, he could recover. As a freshman, he didn’t play every game, because we had defensemen, but he came into his own as a sophomore; it was his time. He started played with more confidence, and you can see that’s growing. Off the ice, he was always respectful, had an infectious attitude, hard worker, great team guy and good at analyzing his game.”
The Gophers have produced a string of quality NHL defensemen, including the Isles’ Nick Leddy, the Sharks’ Paul Martin, the Avalanche’s Erik Johnson and the Stars’ Alex Goligoski, and Lucia envisions a similar path for Skjei. “I saw him when the Rangers played the Wild around Christmas,” Lucia said. “He’s playing more physical. Do I think he’s going to be a dynamic scorer? Well, I know the Rangers used him on the second power play, at his age that’s something. And they had him playing both sides (left and right defense), that’s good for him.”
That flexibility, and an affordable contract, make Skjei an immediate asset in New York: Righty Dan Boyle, 39, who was scratched in the final playoff game, won’t be back and lefty Keith Yandle, a free agent expected to command upwards of $6 million per season, appears unaffordable.
Skjei, who says he is focusing on making more plays in the offensive zone while keeping honest defensively, is acutely aware of the opportunity. “Oh, I’ll be ready,” he said.