- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- As he boards the flight to Finland with the rest of the U.S. National Junior Team candidates Tuesday evening, 18-year-old defenseman Brady Skjei faces a similar scenario to what he has experienced in his freshman year at University of Minnesota:
Trying to crack a tough lineup that boasts a solid back end.
The Rangers’ first-round pick this June (28th overall) will be battling for one of the coveted spots on the blue line as Team USA finalizes its roster heading into the World Junior Hockey Championship tournament.
Playing in camp with the likes of fellow Rangers prospect J.T. Miller and standout defenseman Seth Jones, Skjei has been a player the Rangers brass has watched closely from the club’s practice facility in Westchester, where Team USA’s camp was held this week.
One thing they noticed about the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Minnesota native? He shows glimpses of another Blueshirts defenseman: Ryan McDonagh.
“I think that’s a fair comparison,” Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said. “He’s a tremendous skater, he has size and a lot of potential.”
Skjei was flattered to hear the comparison and said he emulates McDonagh, who played on the Rangers top pairing this year.
“I do,” Skjei said when asked if he models his game after McDonagh. “We’re both good-skating defensemen who can move the puck and if I can be half as good as him I’ll be happy. He’s a guy I’d like to play like and hopefully someday I can play like him.”
Like McDonagh (who went to the University of Wisconsin), Skjei is honing his skills at one of the top college hockey programs in the country. Skjei hasn’t yet earned the type of playing time McDonagh shouldered last season, but he hopes his progress is pointing him upwards.
“You’re tying to adjust to it. I think I’m catching on. Our team’s doing good though, so I’ll pick up my game after Christmas and go from there,” he said.
“Right now, my coaches in Minnesota want me to be a shutdown guy. They taught me offense will come at the end of this year, next year. I think I’m on the right track.”
Skjei hopes he can play that sort of role with Team USA when they travel to Ufa, Russia for this year’s tournament. The team is still planning on making more cuts before play the tournament begins.
“I think I can play a shutdown role. I think that’s what they want me to play. They don’t expect me to be a power-play. Just a good skating, puck-moving defenseman,” he said. “On the Olympic ice, with my skating ability, I think I can use that to my advantage.”
That’s been one skill that the likes of Gorton, Mark Messier, assistant coach Mike Sullivan and Assistant General Manager Jim Schoenfeld have noticed.
Skjei has noticed them too, but he insists it hasn’t frazzled his nerves. Instead, he relishes the opportunity to make a good impression.
“No, that just makes me play harder,” he said. “I think I play better with people watching me, so I like [it].”