Note: All data referenced was current as of 2 PM CST, 3/9/19, unless otherwise noted.
When it comes to Brady Skjei, the devil certainly seems to be in the details.
From the high-level overview, Skjei appears to be a defenseman who has done ok with the shot share (Corsi) and scoring chances (Expected Goals) on mediocre to bad Ranger teams. He’s known as a smooth skater that can move the puck forward while also being a player who can play in most situations. He had a stellar first full season at the age of 22, playing most third to second pair minutes with Kevin Klein, but since then has slowed in production and effectiveness.
Above via Evolving-Hockey.com
Note: Slavin is shown as a comparable, as they have an 89.2% comparable match on CapFriendly.com for their contracts – both of which were signed at the age of 24 while being arbitration eligible.
If we were to stop our analysis here, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Skjei should return to better form as the Rangers get better around him, and the production will follow in suit. The issue with this, however, is twofold. First, because of that rookie season in 2016-17, expectations around Skjei were (and are) very optimistic, and despite a less productive and effective 2017-18, the Rangers decided to bet big on Skjei with a 6-year, $31.5 million deal in July 2018. The Rangers clearly have high expectations for him too, as he only trailed McDonagh (49 GP) and Pionk (28 GP) in Even-Strength Time On Ice per game last season and leads the team in the same category this season (per HockeyReference). Second, with generally worse results as Skjei’s TOI has risen, it is natural to ask why this is the case, and what the Rangers can or should do to get more value out of Skjei moving forward.
In order to understand the current state of Brady Skjei, it is best if we also review the past two years to provide the correct context.
Skjei career summary, HockeyViz
Outside of 7 games in 2015-16, Skjei made the Rangers in the fall of 2016 to begin his career. After initial brief stints with Adam Clendening and Dan Girardi, he settled into a third-pair role with Kevin Klein for about 30 games. In the second half, as his point total kept rising, he was used in a higher TOI role with a slew of teammates, eventually settling with Brendan Smith for the playoff run. From a results standpoint, we couldn’t have asked for much more out of the 22 year old, as the Rangers were better with him on the ice than off when it came to shots and scoring chances.
Skjei was slated into the 2nd pair to begin 2017-18 with Brendan Smith, as the two looked and performed solid in the previous playoffs. The results didn’t end up being the same, with Smith taking the blunt of the blame, while Skjei eventually fell into a higher TOI role with Kevin Shattenkirk for about 25 or so games. The second half of the season was similar to 2016-17, as the Rangers sold off and he played top-pair minutes with a slew of partners. His production dropped, as the Rangers team defense (beyond just the defenders) was one of the worst in the analytics era (since 2007) in terms of shots and chances against. Overall, his shot and chance results were still slightly above average for the year, possibly indicating that he wasn’t completely out of place with the higher TOI.
This is where the positive sentiments mostly stop for Skjei, as 2018-19 has been a challenge. With a thin Left-Hand Defensive corps for NYR, Skjei again has generally seen high TOI, mostly with Adam McQuaid, whose best NHL days are well behind him. His results have been woeful – close to Staal and Pionk levels for both shots and chances for and against. Even with his individual and team on-ice shot percentage above his career average, he is still only on pace for 22 to 23 points this season; a disappointment to say the least. To finish, I’d be remiss to not mention that Tom Urtz Jr. beat me slightly to the punch here, pointing out that Skjei has played better since McQuaid was traded.
So seeing as Skjei is seemingly a large part of the Rangers future plans, given his contract, I wanted to look to see if he’s played particularly well with any certain partners – with the thought being he could maybe find more production and overall success. This prompted me to tweet out of the following graph last Friday, 3/8:
This season is the first where Brady Skjei has negative relative ratings for Corsi (shots) and Expected Goals (scoring chances) at 5v5. Might have more on this next week. cc: @BlueSeatBlogs pic.twitter.com/QrZRRKNbpe
The gist of that graph? Skjei’s results were only really outstanding during his short stints with Clendening and Gilmour. Outside of that, he’s been fine with DeAngelo and Shattenkirk this year, and his numbers with Smith unfortunately took a nasty dive due to the start of the 2017-18 season. You’ll also notice that with Klein, Skjei’s numbers appear to be negative with him, even though his 2016-17 year overall was positive. How could that be? Enter Adam Clendening, as when the smaller samples that involve Clendening and Gilmour (for 2017-18) are removed, Skjei’s overall numbers drop to below average at best:
While it may be expected for his overall shot and chance results to be sub-50 percent due to the Rangers being bad, the fact that Skjei is not making the Rangers overtly better while he’s on the ice (relative results) should be slightly concerning. The key to remember with this season and last is the fact that he’s seeing more than 18 minutes of TOI at even strength, whereas in 2016-17 he was seeing under 16. With higher TOI, players tend to face higher-level opponents (who in turn receive higher TOI themselves), and that is exactly what has happened to Skjei. Could it be that Skjei is struggling with higher TOI against better players?
This is a crude and partially subjective way to look at it, but in general the answer seems to be yes to my question posed above. His expected goal rate doesn’t change dramatically, but the shot attempts (Corsi) do. He has tended to help generate much more offense when playing less minutes, which is likely due to playing against lower TOI competition in 2016-17. It’s not particularly shocking: Skjei is certainly an NHL player as his career GAR/WAR chart showed at the top of the article. The question now is can he take the next step to be more than a third or second pair defender? As we’ve seen from his partner history, it may be key for the Rangers to find Skjei a good complement in order to maximize his abilities.
As with a lot of the analysis this year, the focus will need to be on the defensive personnel this offseason in order to continue to improve from the depths of the end of the AV era. Skjei will likely continue to see high TOI simply because the Rangers don’t have any other options when it comes to Left Handed defensemen, so who to play with him is a mixed bag. Quinn and Ruff for some reason haven’t been willing to give Shattenkirk top minutes, so that now leaves DeAngelo or Smith. Skjei and Smith were reunited in the ugly Detroit game on 3/7, but I do think he is the best option for the remainder of the season because of his ability to defend the zone and play with pace.
To end on a positive note: Brady Skjei has certainly shown flashes of being a good modern NHL defenseman. At 24, there should be a little more left to give, but at the same time it is clear he may need a good partner in order to maximize his production and effectiveness. Whether that be Brendan Smith or someone in the future that isn’t in the Rangers organization now, let’s hope we can get more of what we saw in the spring of 2017 in Ottawa, as the group will need it.