By Sean Hartnett
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They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Don’t tell that to the New York Rangers, who are hoping 21-year-old defenseman Brady Skjei follows in the footsteps of franchise defenseman Ryan McDonagh at this summer’s Traverse City Prospect Tournament.
Back in September 2010, McDonagh starred at the annual round-robin tournament by offering glimpses of his now renowned two-way acumen. Wearing a captain’s ‘C’ on his sweater and the No. 51, McDonagh supplied strong evidence that he was very close to making the jump to the NHL.
While McDonagh did not make the Rangers’ 2010 opening-night roster, it only took him 38 minor league games to prove he was ready for the big time. There was no looking back after McDonagh made his January 7, 2011 NHL debut in Dallas. The 26-year-old captain of the Rangers has established himself as one of the league’s most consistent game-to-game defensemen, and is counted on to shoulder heavy minutes in all situations. McDonagh led Rangers skaters with 23:07 TOI/GP during the 2014-15 regular season and finished the playoffs with a team-leading 23:30 TOI/GP.
Five years later, Skjei could fill the Rangers’ traveling contingent of decision-makers with feelings of Déjà vu. Similar to a young McDonagh, Skjei is a smooth-skating left-handed defenseman who plays a sound positional game and possesses considerable offensive upside. The former University of Minnesota product has an NHL-ready body at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, and he excels in the shutdown game.
“I got bigger and stronger this year at college,” Skjei said during the Rangers’ development camp.
Skjei will have the chance to make a solid impression at the 2015 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, which starts next Friday. He will wear No. 76 during the tournament.
After agreeing to terms on an entry-level contract on April 1, Skjei joined the Hartford Wolf Pack for their final eight regular-season games. He recorded one goal and two assists during the AHL playoffs, helping Hartford to an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final.
Skjei believes his tendencies and athleticism mesh naturally with Alain Vigneault’s uptempo system, which gives defensemen the green light to join the rush.
“I think that they play an up-and-down type of game,” he said. “They like their d-men joining the rush. So I think I’d use my skating ability to my advantage, get up in the play and play that style of hockey.”
The Rangers will begin training camp on September 17. Currently, the Rangers return their six regular defensemen from last year’s playoff run in McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein. 29-year-old Raphael Diaz re-joined the Rangers this summer on a one-year, $700,000 contract and big-bodied 23-year-old Dylan McIlrath could also figure into the competition.
“I’ll try to do my best to crack the lineup, but they have some unbelievable d-men,” Skjei said. “I’ll go in with an open mind and try to make the most of it. Hopefully, I can be around that top-six area. We’ll see.”
The comparisons between Skjei and McDonagh aren’t going to go away any time soon. Skjei acknowledges that he’s modeled his game after McDonagh and appreciates the wisdom he’s received from the Rangers’ captain.
“In the last five or six years, I really liked watching McDonagh,” Skjei said. “He plays the game unbelievable. He’s very good in his own zone, very good in the offensive zone. I talked to him for about 20 minutes. He’s breaking down things that the organization does. He’s an unbelievable guy, a lot of class.”
Great prospects have a way of forcing their way into the NHL. Whether or not Skjei squeezes his way onto the Rangers’ 2015-16 opening-night roster, it’s clear that it won’t be long before he’s a star on Broadway.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.