As preseason ices to a close, we see the 30 NHL teams finalizing rosters, figuring out line combinations, and placing the pieces to their organizations puzzle hopefully in all the right spots. The New York Rangers are slowly, slowly meaning the six-game-long preseason we are in the midst of, deciding who belongs where, who returns to NYC and who can potentially help out the AHL affiliate, the Wolfpack, in Hartford, CT.
Brady Skjei, Rangers 2012 first round draft pick, 28th overall, is not one of those shoo-in players for this 2016-17 season. The Minnesota born, 6’3’’ defenseman’s NHL career began late last season while injuries plagued the Rangers. Coming up from Hartford, Skjei played in seven regular season games and five playoff games with the Blueshirts. He recorded two assists in the first round, Pittsburgh Penguins dominated series, leaving the Rangers packing their bags for an early exit and longer offseason than the previous 5 seasons.
Fast forward to now. Training camp and preseason winding down; tryouts are ending and reassignments are happening. Skjei is still in the mix, logging 25:10 ice time, just behind veteran defender Marc Staal at 26:28 in last nights preseason 3-2 OT loss to the rival New York Islanders. Head coach Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff have one more preseason game, with practices sprinkled in, to decide who makes the starting roster for the season. Will Skjei defend the blue line for the Blueshirts?
As a young and skilled hockey player, 22 years-old, where do you focus when you’re not guaranteed a role? Post-game at Barclays Center Skjei said, “My number one goal is to make the team. That’s all that’s on my mind right now. I’m trying to get better everyday. I thought that the start of my camp wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I feel like I have gotten better everyday, and being harder to play against. My game is turning around.”
NHL game pace is like no other. Guys are quick, guys are skilled to the highest level. There are a lot of games in a lot of nights, especially this preseason. “It’s quick. You’ve got guys flying around, trying to make an impression,” Skjei said. “It’s a quick game and a little different than summer hockey. I have to get involved and move my feet.”
One more preseason game awaits the Rangers, Thursday’s match-up at the Garden against the Philadelphia Flyers, who took their first preseason match in OT as the Rangers rallied out of a 3-0 deficit. The line-up will most likely include more starters, as this will be the last contest before opening the season at home against the Islanders on Oct. 13. Vigneault will have his eyes on Skjei, forced to decide where he will start his 2016-17 hockey season.
“We have one more game here to finalize roster decisions, We still have a couple to decisions to make. Some players are going to get another opportunity to show us what they have,” Vigneault said, “I haven’t honestly seen him [Skjei] play with the same speed and decision making I saw him play with last year. Obviously we’re early in the season and everybody is trying to find their rhythm, young players and older players. Brady is without a doubt a skilled young defenseman that we have a lot of confidence in – but like some veteran players he needs to do a little bit more. Hopefully it will start next game.”
A familiar face to Skjei is Jeff Beukeboom, former Rangers tough guy and assistant coach of the Hartford Wolfpack for the past four season. Beukeboom has played an instrumental role in the professional development of Skjei, and now he is with the Rangers in the Assistant Coach role.
“First couple of games I wasn’t pleased at all with my game,” Skjei said. “I talked to the coaches and talked to Beuk a lot and he gave me some pointers – told me to play my game and relax. I had him last year in Hartford. That’s huge for me. Helped me a ton. Keeps me in check.”
Will this off-season new hire for the Rangers play a pivotal role in Skjei making the team?
The end of training camp and the start of the season is a critical point for Skjei. Keep your eyes on the final roster out of camp, No. 76 seems to have a good shot at being there.