A telling Gif from Thursday’s loss on Skjei struggles, The harsh reality Blueshirt fans must face

I didn’t catch it. However, other fans did. Following an undisciplined minor penalty by Brady Skjei, coach David Quinn had some interesting words with assistant coaches David Oliver and Lindy Ruff on the Rangers bench.

Kevin DeLury caught it and then highlighted what Quinn was saying to Ruff about Skjei. The much maligned fifth-year defenseman who had another forgettable game in the team’s 4-3 loss at Calgary.

The Go Rangers Radio podcaster, who once ran the best blog about the team, definitely is on to something. It doesn’t take much to figure out what Quinn told Ruff. He was done with Skjei for Thursday night. A game in which he also finished minus-two. He didn’t see another shift the rest of the third period.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens moving forward. Given the situation, I doubt you’ll see Marc Staal get over 22 minutes of ice time when the Rangers visit Vancouver tomorrow night. With both Ryan Lindgren and Skjei struggling, Quinn had no choice but to double shift the veteran left defenseman. He was the only steady player of the team’s trio.

Would the coach consider healthy scratching a defenseman for Libor Hajek, who has been skating with the team on the road trip? That’s possible. However, I’m afraid that if he gets in the lineup, it’ll be for Lindgren, who received less than 13 minutes due to a second consecutive bad game. Not Skjei, who will be given more leeway due to his standing.

I’m not suggesting I agree if that’s what Quinn does. But the issue here is Skjei is trusted by the coaching staff to log more important minutes than Lindgren, who at last check is still a 21-year old rookie that plays alongside fellow 21-year old freshman Adam Fox on the third pair. With Fox recording a career high three points on all assists last night to give him five helpers in the past two games, he has been a productive player for the club. His 22 points (5-17-22) rank second among Rangers defensemen behind Tony DeAngelo (8-21-29). Jacob Trouba also has 21 points (6-15-21).

Offense from the blueline isn’t an issue for the Rangers. Team defense is. They aren’t very good at protecting the front of the net or stopping opponents in transition as was evidenced on Thursday night. Puck management is part of the problem. It doesn’t only apply to the six D, but also the 12 forwards.

Artemi Panarin had arguably his worst game as a Ranger, going minus-three with three shots. His ill advised back pass trapped Trouba and Skjei, directly causing a breakaway goal scored by Johnny Gaudreau. His line got victimized three times including on a Flames odd man rush started by Gaudreau that linemate Sean Monahan finished for the game-winner. The three forwards including Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast didn’t do a good enough job getting back. Neither did Lindgren, who got caught napping on Noah Hanifin’s feed down low for the Monahan tally.

Even though it’s been a struggle lately for him, Lindgren has been a pleasant surprise for a team that lacks enough grit and physicality. He’s played in 30 games so far after debuting last year. His improvement has been a bright spot that’s not discussed enough. A classic stay at home defenseman who plays with an edge similar to former Blueshirt Mike Sauer, Lindgren has improved his skating and positioning to form a solid third pair with the smoother skating and more offensive minded Fox.

If Quinn so chooses to give him a night off in the press box, so be it. It’s part of the learning process. As for Skjei, the mistakes are glaring. No longer a kid as he was under former coach Alain Vigneault, who took his share of heat for not using Skjei higher than the third pair, he’s proven to be correct about the former 2012 first round pick. He was only protecting the defenseman from tougher match-ups. Now, he’s exposed on the top pair while dragging down Trouba, who has to do too much.

In a perfect world, Skjei would be on the second pair. However, the rebuilding Blueshirts aren’t in that position. They must manage young players like Lindgren, Fox and DeAngelo. Ditto for Hajek, who hasn’t proven himself despite the organization believing he’s as good as advertised due to GM Jeff Gorton trading away Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller to the Lightning in a trade that also netted Brett Howden.

The best aspect of the trade could be yet to come with 19-year old defenseman Nils Lundkvist possibly a year away. He’s playing for Sweden at the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic with recent second round pick Karl Henriksson. Both have performed well. Lundkvist has five assists and Henriksson is 1-2-3 as an 18-year old center. Sweden will face Russia in one semifinal tomorrow. The other semifinal pits Canada against Finland, who ousted Team USA 1-0 in the quarterfinals.

Former 2018 first round pick K’Andre Miller (0-2-2) had a disappointing tournament. Recent third round pick Zac Jones (1-1-2) was more impressive. Perhaps 2019 second round pick Matthew Robertson has the brightest future of all the team’s defense prospects. He’s a left defenseman who the team didn’t hesitate to sign following a eye opening camp.

What does all this have to do with Skjei, who Gorton mistakenly gave an average cap hit of $5.25 million through 2024? Just that the contract looks very bad right now. Sure. The skating defenseman will put up points as his 17 attest. However, once Staal comes off the books next year, Skjei will replace the second most tenured Ranger as the worst contract on the roster. Not withstanding the $8.5 million cap hit they’re also on the hook for Henrik Lundqvist through 2021. But both Staal ($5.7 million AAV) and Lundqvist can come off the cap, freeing up lots of space if the organization sticks to the long-term plan.

What happens if Skjei doesn’t improve? It’s still up to the 25-year old American to find consistency under Quinn. He can’t keep getting turned around like a turnstile for goals against, or continuing to take unnecessary penalties. An area Quinn has been pretty consistent at emphasizing. He even benched Kaapo Kakko for an offensive zone holding minor in a game he was very good in posting a goal and assist. It might’ve come at the expense of winning.

The only player who doesn’t seem to get punished is Pavel Buchnevich. A polarizing fourth-year pro that’s similar to Skjei. They expect more than six goals in 40 games. The 22 points isn’t an improvement either. If the Russian right wing, who’s being given every chance to succeed in the top six, doesn’t pick it up during the second half, he could become trade bait.

When one looks at the Rangers closely which includes metrics that involve Corsica, it’s ugly. Even if you are objective like me and remember to include the zone starts, there aren’t many positives. A whole lot of negatives due to this team not possessing the puck enough. They aren’t a good forechecking team. That includes face-offs which remains a sore spot.

There have been games they won which were stolen by Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev. If the goalies don’t perform at a high level as was the case for a frustrated Georgiev in Edmonton and Lundqvist, who wasn’t all that bad at Calgary, then the Blueshirts have no chance most nights.

They aren’t good enough yet. Unless so-called ‘vets’ like Skjei drastically improve, there won’t be any playoffs for a third straight year. Something I pretty much expected coming in. Even with Panarin, Zibanejad and continued revelation Strome performing at a high level, it’s not enough to carry this team. Don’t forget D Day is coming on Chris Kreider.

If you subtracted the Bread Man, they’d likely be near the bottom of the league. Maybe not Red Wing bad. But in the mix for the NHL Lottery that features top Canadian scoring prospect Alexis Lafreniere.

Don’t look now. But the Devils are only six points behind for seventh in the Metro Division. There aren’t many bad teams either. Just a lot of mediocrity. The Rangers could drop back down into the bottom six that includes the Devils (36), Senators (37), Ducks (38), Kings (38), Sharks (39) and Red Wings (23). Their 42 points tie them with Chicago and Nashville. The Sabres and Wild each have 43.

The truth is we have to be realistic about the situation. It’s probably not going to get better. At 19-17-4, the Rangers have probably overachieved up to this point. Especially if you measure everything by charts as some stubborn fan bloggers do. This isn’t that kind of team. You have to judge each player by how they’re performing. By actually you know. WATCHING each shift.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings. I’m not expecting much.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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