Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich have the same ultimate goal as the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championships get underway in Sweden on Thursday, and that is to finish the tournament wearing a gold medal. However Gordie Clark, the Rangers Director of Player Personnel, takes a broader look at things, wanting these two key future Blueshirts to perform well on the big stage of this prestigious tournament no matter where Skjei's Team USA or Buchnevich's Russian squad finishes in the end.
"It's a lot to ask for, to see your prospects win this tournament every year," explained Clark, who in recent years has seen Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Danny Kristo, and most recently J.T. Miller earn gold medals with Team USA. "This is a very tough tournament to win. But what is most important to us as an organization is that we get to see our top prospects play against the best under-20 players in the world, and it gives us an idea of how close they are (to turning professional), and where they are in their development. This is my favorite tournament because it really helps me see where our top prospects stand."
Skjei, the Rangers first round selection in the 2012 NHL Draft, is a 6-foot-3, 206 pound defenseman playing in his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota. Last year he made it to the final cut with Team USA, but ended up watching from home as Miller and the United States won the 2013 WJC gold medal out in Russia.
While proud of his friends and fellow countrymen, Skjei was extremely disappointed in not being a part of that team, and has used it for extra motivation ever since.
"He was the last cut last year, and that hurts, especially watching from afar when the United States won the tournament," offered Clark. "He really wanted to be a part of it; but that has motivated him to make sure he'd be a part of the team this year, and part of that was making sure he was an even better and stronger player at Minnesota, too. What helps him is that he is an even-keeled guy. He understood and respected the decision of Team USA, and then set out to make sure he'd be a part of this year's team."
The 19 year-old Skjei has added muscle to his frame, and is a stronger skater this year, as well. No longer a freshman, Skjei has received increased responsibility at both ends of the ice with the Golden Gophers so far this season, and his confidence has grown, as well.
"He has had an outstanding year for a sophomore, so far," Clark said of Skjei, who as more of a defensive-minded defenseman still has two goals, three assists, and five points in 15 games--already two points more than he had in 36 games as a Freshman. "Brady is definitely stronger, you can see it out on the ice. He is headed in the right direction for sure."
The comparisons between Skjei and another Minnesota-born defenseman---Ryan McDonagh---at this same stage in development are quite striking, according to Clark. Skjei has patterned his game and style after McDonagh's, and Clark says that the players are similar in demanor as well as style.
"These guys don't show emotion, but they are both churning inside," Clark said of Skjei and McDonagh.
Clark's attention won't be focused solely on Brady Skjei, though, during this year's World Junior Championships. He'll be paying very close attention as well to 18 year-old Pavel Buchnevich, the highly skilled forward selected 75th overall by the Rangers in the 2013 NHL Draft.
The 6-foot-1, 176 pound Buchnevich still has a ways to go as far as filling out physically, but his skill set excites Rangers scouts and front office personnel to no end. And the fact that he is playing with veteran players in the KHL despite only being 18 is seen as a major plus in his development, too.
"He is playing in a men's league as an 18 year old, that's a big deal to us," Clark said of Buchnevich. "Just to be able to play with men is huge for his development, even though his ice time varies wildy from game to game."
In 31 games with HC Severstal this season Buchnevich has scored six goals and added six assists for 12 points, impressive numbers for a player so young in such a high level professional league.
"Buch still has to build up physically, but he has played very well," said Clark. "He is playing with his hands and his head right now because his skill level is so high."
The 2014 World Junior Championships begin on December 26th, with the Gold Medal game slated for January 5th.
BlueshirtsUnited.com and the team's official Twitter, @nyrangers, will be following Brady Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich throughout the tournament. Make sure to check in regularly with both to see how Brady and Pavel are doing.