RALEIGH, N.C. — At the end of last season, one question for the Rangers was: Who’s going to replace the offense that defenseman Keith Yandle provided?
It was clear that general manager Jeff Gorton, who had kept Yandle around for the short playoff run, wouldn’t be able to sign the 29-year-old free agent. So he swapped Yandle’s negotiating rights to the Florida Panthers last June for a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth-rounder this June.
Yandle, who was a force on the power play during eight seasons with the Coyotes with 311 points in 558 games, then agreed to a seven-year, $44.5-million deal with the Panthers.
No one expected someone to fill Yandle’s role so quickly.
But surprisingly, at 22, rookie Brady Skjei quietly has, even without playing on the team’s top defense pair.
Their stats are all but identical. Yandle is 3-29-32 in 65 games; Skjei, who started slowly, has gone 3-29-32 in 66 games. But Skjei has played 315 fewer minutes.
In the Rangers’ 5-2 win in the second game of the Florida swing on Tuesday, Yandle played 23:30, including 4:26 on the power play, with two shots on goal and two blocks. Skjei played 19:12, with 3:11 on the power play, and had two shots on goal and an assist. And Skjei, whose salary is $925,000 annually, is bigger and decidedly the more physical of the two. He has been credited with 111 hits, Yandle 21.
Yandle has the portfolio, but Skjei has the upside.
To be sure, it was been an impressive start to the Minnesotan’s career. Among rookie defensemen this season, Skjei is second in scoring, behind Columbus’ Zach Werenski (9-30-39). Skjei is only one of three Rangers defensemen in 30 years with at least 25 assists as a rookie; he trails only Brian Leetch (48 in 1988-89) and Michael Del Zotto (28 in 2009-10).
Coach Alain Vigneault knows he has a gem in the smooth-skating Skjei but wants him to keep learning.
“He can turn and go get pucks and just bobble his shoulders a bit, and then he has a step and he’s gone,” Vigneault said recently. “Now he just has to improve his decision-making with the puck and that comes just by playing more. He has taken some positive steps and we need him to continue.”
Notes & quotes: The Rangers, winners of two straight, visit the Hurricanes Thursday . . . Defenseman Sean Day, who was the 81st overall pick in last June’s draft, signed a three-year entry-level contract. The 19-year-old lefty, who plays for the Windsor Spitfires, skates extremely well for his size (6-2, 231) and is 14-17-31 in 57 games in the OHL, where he will finish the season.