In a non-surprising move, the Rangers recalled Brady Skjei from Hartford. The 22-year old defenseman is expected to play tonight for injured captain Ryan McDonagh, who didn’t return after the first period due to blocking a shot with his right wrist. With his status still uncertain, Skjei could get into the final three games all at home before the playoffs.
A 2012 first round pick selected by the Rangers 28th overall, the former University of Minnesota standout has had a good first pro season with Hartford registering four goals and 24 assists with 36 penalty minutes and a minus-six rating in 68 games. Skjei’s also been recalled before playing four games with the Rangers while not looking out of place. A smooth skating, left-handed defenseman who fits into coach Alain Vigneault’s system, he’ll likely play over Dylan McIlrath, who can’t catch a break.
Even after proving he could play the aggressive transition speed game Vigneault prefers, McIlrath finds himself the odd man out. Despite the size (6-5, 220) and strength along with the edge the current blueline lacks, the right-handed rugged blueliner remains a healthy scratch even after recovering from a knee injury. He’s gotten into 31 games posting two goals and an assist with 60 penalty minutes and a plus-six rating. Already a fan favorite, The Undertaker has stood up for fallen teammates including the much ballyhooed fight with Wayne Simmonds, avenging McDonagh, who was concussed by a Simmonds punch.
If Skjei plays over McIlrath, it isn’t so much an indictment of the rookie. But more of a preference by Vigneault, who likes having three left-defensemen paired with three right D. Skjei fits the bill. He also has size listed at 6-3, 206. With Vigneault fully committed to blood and guts soldier Dan Girardi, McIlrath continues to sit. At times, Girardi looks okay playing the position the only way he knows how. At others, he gets beaten and makes mistakes that can be costly. It’s a dicey situation.
Vigneault also likes Dan Boyle, who scored his ninth in the Rangers’ playoff clinching 4-2 win at Columbus Monday night. Boyle has raised his game in the second half. A credit to the 39-year old vet who could hang it up following the season. He has given the Blueshirts hard minutes and remains a good option on the second power play unit.
Kevin Klein has struggled lately with turnovers and has been victimized for goals against. However, he’s trusted by Vigneault and currently was paired with McDonagh. Without him, that means a heavy dose of Marc Staal, who had a throwback game last night playing over 25 minutes. Staal can pair with either Girardi or Boyle depending upon the match-up. When he hasn’t worked with McDonagh, Klein has played with Keith Yandle. Figure them to see quite a few shifts together. Skjei could slide in on the third pair and team with either Boyle or Girardi, whose minutes have been better managed by the coaching staff.
If McDonagh is out for a period including the start of next week’s first round, it could really hurt the Rangers’ chances. Their most dependable defenseman who anchors the back end, he plays every situation and is the second most valuable player on the roster behind Henrik Lundqvist. Obviously, Staal and Yandle would be heavily leaned on to offset the potential loss of the captain.
Whatever happens between now and however long the postseason is, the organization can’t be blinded by the final result. They must create room for both Skjei and McIlrath to be part of the top six in ’16-17. Any failure to do so would be detrimental to the club’s future. That means GM Jeff Gorton, President Glen Sather and Vigneault must be on the same page. It also could spell the end for Girardi, who has been a warrior since he joined the team in ’06-07. He’s the longest tenured Ranger skater participating in 724 games and another 108 in the postseason. Does he have one more run in him?
Hard decisions will be made during the summer. For now, let’s enjoy the remaining three regular season games with the big Islander match coming Thursday. A game I might be attending. As far as the postseason, bring it on. Hopefully, McDonagh will not be out long-term. If he is, we’ll see if a still very experienced close knit group can rally around their captain the same way they did Martin St. Louis two years ago.