The New York Rangers have been one of the quietest teams these last two weeks.
After making a huge splash at the trade deadline — then re-signing pending free agent Mats Zuccarello to a hefty contract extension — the Rangers look ready as ever to make a deep playoff run. It’s hard to ignore their cap situation, though; unless the salary cap goes up a significant bit more than anticipated, New York is looking at an uncomfortably tight salary situation moving forward.
Many of the other cap-crunched teams have been turning to the college hockey market, though — and with New York’s announcement that University of Minnesota defenseman Brady Skjei is forgoing his final season of NCAA eligibility to sign with the club, it looks like they’re joining in the fun.
Skjei is a rarity among top prospects; he’s billed as a two-way defender, but clearly prefers the defensive size of the game. He doesn’t do much in the way of producing offense — although he chips in for a handful of points every season, finishing his three years at Minnesota with eight goals and nineteen assists over 109 NCAA regular season games — but his positioning in his own zone is pretty top of the line. Assuming he’s able to smoothly transition to playing in faster-paced NHL games, he could be a strong penalty kill option moving forward — although he projects as more of a lower pairing blue liner, his game draws parallels to that of Zbynek Michalek in St. Louis.
In addition to his entry-level deal, Skjei has been signed to an amateur try-out contract with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL, where he will report and make his debut before the week is over. It’s likely that he’ll remain in Hartford for at least another season, but his waiver-exempt status and strong NCAA experience will provide New York with a cheap, reliable option as a long-term call up, should they need one.
Although the Rangers are best known for favoring defensemen with similar skill sets to Skjei — whom they drafted in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft with the twenty-ninth overall pick — he may end up hitting a bottleneck in their system. Since getting dealt from New York, Rangers blue liner John Moore has already seen improvements in his game with the Arizona Coyotes that many believe is strongly correlated to a depth chart shift; with top blue liners like Marc Staal already holding court over the team’s penalty kill, Skjei will have to stand out more so than he did in college to earn a long-term spot with the team.
With a number of teams looking for more defensively sound blue liners to add to their depth charts, though, Skjei provides one other option — he could easily serve as a bargaining chip with a team holding on to something New York may want in coming seasons.