The Rangers avoided salary arbitration with restricted free agent defenseman Brady Skjei by signing the former first round pick to a six-year contract worth $31.5 million, the team announced Saturday. The contract carries a cap hit of $5.25 million per season.
The signing leaves the Rangers with two remaining RFAs who are unsigned and scheduled to go to arbitration — forwards Kevin Hayes and Ryan Spooner. Hayes is scheduled to go to arbitration on Aug. 2, while Spooner’s hearing is set for Aug. 4.
Skjei, 24, was the only player to skate in all 82 games for the Rangers last season, scoring four goals, with 21 assists (25 points) and accumulating 39 penalty minutes. Toward the end of the season, with so many injuries on the defense corps, and after the Rangers sold off so many assets at the trading deadline and brought up so many young defensemen, Skjei emerged as one of the team’s leaders on defense despite being just a second-year player and one of the younger members of the team.
Skjei has played 169 games over parts of three seasons, scoring a total of nine goals, with 55 assists (64 points) and 85 penalty minutes. Last season, he finished second on the team in hits (127) and blocked shots (119) and was third in averaged ice time (21:01 per game). But from Feb. 9, when Rangers management declared to fans that it would go into a rebuilding mode, until the end of the season, the 6-3, 211-pound Skjei led the team in ice time, with an average 22:59 per game, mostly playing on the second defensive pairing with an assortment of partners.
With what figures to be a wild competition for spots on the defense when training camp opens Sept. 10, Skjei should be one of the few sure things on defense part of the roster. He and veteran Marc Staal have the fewest question marks attached to them, and second-year man Neal Pionk, who made a huge impression in the final third of the season and made the U.S. team for the World Championships, should be considered a near-lock, too, with veteran Kevin Shattenkirk and Steven Kampfer trying to come back from injuries, Brendan Smith trying to bounce back from a disappointing year that ended on the injured list in Hartford, and prospects Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren trying to stand out from a group of young defensemen that includes Long Island’s Rob O’Gara, South Jersey’s Tony DeAngelo, John Gilmour and a host of others.