SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the playoffs near, the Rangers coaches want to test the boundaries of rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, perhaps for a bigger role in the postseason.
Skjei, a natural lefty who turned 23 Sunday, was on the right side of the second pair with Marc Staal on Tuesday night during a 5-4 overtime loss to the Sharks. The Minnesota native, who has been stationed on the left side of the third duo, had three assists Tuesday night and now has two goals and four assists in his last six games and 38 points on the season.
The Rangers secured a playoff spot with the one point.
“You’re used to playing that one position, this is getting him out of his comfort zone,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “But it’s something we wanted to see in the last couple of games. We know that Smitty [lefty Brendan Smith] can play there, we know [Nick] Holden can play there. You never know what might happen moving forward, so we thought tonight was a good time to get him a little more experience there and see how he does.”
“I don’t think it’ll be too much of a change,” Skjei said before the game. “I did that a lot in Hartford, and Marc’s a really good player.”
The move seems to foreshadow what’s in store for the team’s nine blueliners down the stretch. Vigneault wants to assess the spares — Adam Clendening, Steven Kampfer — and monitor those coming off injuries — Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein.
But Vigneault said fairly strongly that he would not rest players unless necessary.
“If somebody has been playing through a nagging injury, then we might, if the situation permits, give him some down time,” he said. “But I’m not a big fan of resting guys: you keep playing, you keep your tempo, you keep your momentum, but that’s all depends on where we are in the standings.”
Said Vigneault: “I need to work those guys [Klein and Girardi] in and at the same time, I might take some of those last games to make sure that the extra Ds, just like the extra forwards, play at least one to get some game situations. So there’s that balancing act between getting your lines together, getting your d-pairs together, getting healthy and making sure certain guys get some playing time.”
Skjei may be exempt from rest, although he has dressed for all 76 games.
“I think I’ve grown a little bit,” Skjei said. “There’s been ups and downs for sure. Things have been going well recently.”
The strides, he believes, have been “more mental, making the right play when it’s there. You try to stay confident throughout the year and try not to get too high or too low. Mac [captain Ryan McDonagh] has been great, we work out in the summer together and he gives me pointers on the bench and in practice.”
When the Rangers lost to the Penguins in five games in the first round of the playoffs last season, Skjei, with just seven NHL games under his belt, was their best all-around blueliner. This season, he has been a noteworthy regular.
“If you make plays and maybe score a goal every once in awhile, it feeds your confidence,” Skjei said. “But I’ve really got to focus on playing in the d-zone. That’s one part where I want to keep getting better, and the offense, I think, will come.”