By Matt Calamia (Twitter)
The Rangers’ blueline is full of former first round picks, whether drafted by the organization or acquired via trades.
Both Marc Staal (2005) and Michael Del Zotto (2008) were drafted in the top-20 by New York, while Ryan McDonagh (2007) John Moore (2009) and Steve Eminger (2002) were all chosen by other teams in the opening 30 picks before making their way to the Big Apple.
The Rangers hope the success continues with 2012 first-round pick Brady Skjei, a self-described two-way defenseman who is strong at starting the rush with a good first pass out of his zone.
“I don’t want to be a liability in one of the zones,” Skjei told BlueshirtsUnited.com about being balanced in all areas of the ice. “I think that’s much better than being strong in just one end.”
Skjei said he would compare his game to that of Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Nick Leddy, whom Skjei played against in high school while attending Lakeview North High School in Minnesota.
Many, though, have compared Skjei to McDonagh, especially in their skating ability.
“I think for sure I want to play like him,” Skjei said of McDonagh. “He’s willing to block a shot in the defensive zone but can also get a puck through from the point. There’s not much wrong with his game at all. I think he’s a great guy to look after.”
Hockey — especially high school and college — reigns supreme in Minnesota, and Skjei has already been exposed to big-game matchups at both levels. In 2010 as a sophomore in high school, Skjei’s Lake View North Panthers finished runner-up in the Class AA state championships, and had the chance to play in front of 19,000 fans at the Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild.
After three seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program — which included appearances at both the 2011 Under-17 World Hockey Challenge and the 2012 Under-18 World Junior Championships — Skjei lived the dream of many Minnesota hockey players by skating with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers this past season.
“It was a lot of fun playing for a home crowd again,” said Skjei, who notched a goal and two assists and was a plus-11 in 36 games. “It was everything I ever thought of and more. It was unbelievable.”
While all players want to make a big splash offensively, Skjei said his first season was more of a focus on playing sound defense.
“Play defense and the offense will come” was the advice Skjei said he was given from the coaching staff at Minnesota. “The offense will for sure come next year. They wanted me to focus on defense and I think I did a good job.”
While many in the state view donning the Gophers jersey as the ultimate in any hockey career, Skjei said that’s just one goal he’s set for himself.
“Everyone knows hockey here, and everyone’s dream is to play for the Gophers,” he said. “My goal was to play in the NHL someday. I think that gets over-looked sometimes in Minnesota. For me, I want to play in the NHL.”
The next step for Skjei is to take summer classes and prepare for his sophomore season in Minnesota, though he will travel east during the first week of July for the team’s development camp, where he said he wants to show the organization how much he’s improved since a year ago.
“I think you try and show what you can do to the organization and coaching staff,” Skjei said. “You learn a lot from other players. You try and make a good impression and try and take [the experience] in. It’s a fun experience, especially with the way the Rangers do it.”