By Kirk Luedeke
If you’re of the belief that the Boston Bruins need to add defensive depth to the organization, then Brady Skjei could be in the club’s wheelhouse for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in June.
|Defenseman Brady Skjei helped Team USA win its fourth gold medal in a row at the World Under-18 Championship this spring. (Photo by Tom Sorensen)|
The native Minnesotan and U.S. National Team Development Program product has good size at 6-feet-2, 200-pounds and is one of the draft’s best skaters at the position. The University of Minnesota recruit was on the Team USA squad that won a fourth consecutive gold medal at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April.
“It speaks for how good USA hockey has gotten since the program has been around,” Skjei said recently as he packed up his belongings to make the trip from Ann Arbor, Mich. to his home in Lakeville, Minn. “The chemistry of the guys on the (Under-18 team) is unbelievable. I was with them every day—in and out of school—on and off the ice. We developed a good bond and that carried over in our practices, games and roadies.”
Skjei and his mates overcame the doom-and-gloom of some predictions that held that the 2012 version of the Under-18 Team would not be able to extend Team USA’s winning streak. The Americans punctuated their impressive run to the IIHF title with a thrashing of Team Sweden in the championship game that won’t soon be forgotten.
“It was good to finish our time here as a team with another (Under-18) championship,” said Skjei. “It was a team win. We all had our roles to play and we came together when it mattered most.”
Skjei is a confident player who said he left his home state two years ago for the challenge of the national team program because he didn’t feel high school provided the challenge he sought.
“I think I’m a smooth-skating ‘D’,” he said when asked to describe his game. “I’m able to bring the puck up the ice quickly and I’m reliable in the d-zone, too. I think I make a good first pass on the breakout.”
Skjei said he patterns his own game after that of fellow Minnesotan Nick Leddy, now a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. Skjei derives inspiration from Philadelphia’s Matt Carle as well.
Although Skjei brings some fine hockey tools and has the size for it, his number one area of improvement lies with the contact aspect of the game.
“I think being more physical is the No. 1 thing for me,” said Skjei. “I’m not afraid to throw the body, but I need to just get better at using my body more effectively. Right now, my game is more about using my feet and angling guys away from prime scoring areas, and things like that.”
Skjei comes from fine athletic stock: his grandfather, Stan Skjei played cornerback at the University of Minnesota, while his uncle Brett Sadek was a QB for the Golden Gophers as well. Another uncle, Barry Karn, is the skating coach for the Minnesota Wild, and young Skjei trained alongside NHL veterans from the state like Jordan Leopold.
The two-way blueliner has come a long way since he left Minnesota for the NTDP. He gained 20 pounds between his first and second year with the program and gained valuable experience against USHL, NCAA and international competition.
“Being on the Under-17 team meant we were working out a lot,” he said. “We had a lot of tough days, tough practices that would grind you out. But all that work pays off. We were playing opponents who were bigger, faster and stronger, but that all helped us to be able to put it all together this season.”
With his size and speed, Skjei appears to have worked himself solidly into position among the first 30 selections next month.
“This is a kid who has really improved for me in the two years I’ve watched him,” an NHL scout with a Western Conference team said recently. “He has some real power in his stride and he’s able to advance the puck pretty effectively. I think he’s only now starting to develop the offensive dimension of his game.”
If today’s NHL is more about speed and agility at the defense position, then Skjei brings the best of both worlds.
“He’s a very good skater,” said another NHL scout, this one with an Eastern Conference club. “He’s a good all-around d-man with size who skates so well.”
Others, however, are concerned that Skjei’s impressive mobility is countered by a feeling that he does not have the offensive potential to be a legitimate top-two defenseman at the highest level.
“He’s limited in my opinion,” said one NHL scout who attended the Under-18 tournament in Brno, Czech Republic. “I wonder about the vision and the hockey sense sometimes. I think he has the physical package to be an NHLer, but he may not be anything more than a fifth or sixth guy, and I would be leery of taking that kind of player in the first round.”
Even if opinions vary among those in the scouting community, one of his teammates has no doubt that Skjei is on the right path to an NHL career.
“He’s a real rink rat and great guy in the locker room,” said fellow USA defender Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) “He improved his defensive play this season and has a big stick; such a good skater and great kid.”
With Skjei having emerged as one of the “safer” options in the current draft class, there just might be enough believers that his offensive game has some untapped potential to see him drafted before the 25th selection.