New York Rangers: Signing Shattenkirk unimportant without trusting Skjei

MONTREAL, QC - APRIL 20: Brady Skjei
MONTREAL, QC - APRIL 20: Brady Skjei /

Kevin Shattenkirk joining the Rangers gives them an amazing first two defense pairings. Or at least it should. Coach Alain Vigneault still needs to prove he knows who his best defenders are.

Rising sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei made a sensational debut on New York’s blue line. Skjei built on his 39 point regular season with a stellar playoffs, tying for the team lead with four goals.

The swift skating lefty’s play has some Ranger fans dreaming of a young Brian Leetch. Skjei still has a long way to go before reaching Leetch’s level. Nevertheless, his unexpected offense offers tantalizing potential.

Despite thrilling two-way play, Skjei’s ice time often disappeared at the end of tight games, especially in the playoffs. Vigneault’s penchant for benching Skjei to ice struggling veterans might have cost New York a trip to the conference finals.

The pairing of Marc Staal and Nick Holden proved particularly disastrous for the Rangers’ hopes of advancing. If both remain on the roster in 17-18, then Vigneault must learn treat them like fringe options. The Rangers cannot contend if he continues to heap minutes on them.

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The big four

Shattenkirk joins Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, and Skjei to complete New York’s top four. On paper, it looks like the best Ranger top four since the days of Leetch and Sergei Zubov.

Vigneault’s history suggests he might find a way to bungle those pairings though. This is the same coach who played star defender Keith Yandle on the third pairing below Staal. Just last year, Vigneault relegated Adam Clendening to the press box for most of the season despite encouraging performances.

Though Shattenkirk is a new addition, Vigneault had McDonagh, Smith, and Skjei for last season’s playoffs and mostly mismanaged them.

Skjei averaged the same 19:15 minutes per playoff game as Staal. That’s the lowest average playoff ice time of any top six Ranger defender. Meanwhile, Smith’s 19:41 barely exceeded Holden’s 19:20.

Most egregiously, the recently bought out Dan Girardi saw a whopping 22:06 minutes per playoff game. Only McDonagh saw the ice more regularly of the Rangers’ blue liners at 27:21.

To sum up, Skjei and Smith saw roughly as much ice time as Staal and Holden despite heavily outplaying them. Vigneault forced McDonagh to carry Girardi until the bitter end.

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No Staal-ing Skjei

Vigneault gave Staal top four minutes over Skjei in 16-17 even as the directions of their games suggested doing the opposite.

This is statistician Domenic Galamini’s HERO chart for Skjei and Staal.

HERO stands for Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic, but these charts just rank skaters’ even strength play in a few categories for easy comparison: Shot suppression (preventing shot attempts against), shot generation (creating shot attempts for), goals, first assists, and ice time.

Skjei excels at a defenseman’s most important job, suppressing shots. He ranks in the 70th percentile of NHL defensemen for shot suppression while Staal lags behind in the 40th.

Skjei also grades above Staal in every other category except for amount of ice time received. Most strikingly, Skjei posts even strength goals and assists at an elite rate for defensemen. Vigneault should adjust accordingly.

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A matter of trust

No single game better encapsulates Vigneault’s failures managing his defense than game two against Ottawa of last season’s playoffs. Skjei out-shined McDonagh and even opposing superstar Erik Karlsson by scoring two goals.

Skjei capped the signature performance of his young career with a brilliant play. After breaking up a three-on-one, he skated the length of the ice and blasted a puck past Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson to put New York up 5-3.

Skjei took over the game. Unfortunately, Vigneault responded by benching Skjei and Smith for the final five minutes. They sat and watched while their teammates blew the lead.

Smith and Skjei wound up with the fewest and second fewest minutes of Ranger defensemen that day. Holden’s 28:11 and Staal’s 26:24 easily eclipsed Skjei’s 22:18 and Smith’s 20:44. Girardi played 29:35.

The Rangers dropped games two and five against Ottawa plus game two against Montreal from round one in extremely similar fashion. Over and over again, Vigneault favored most of his worst defensemen in the most important moments.

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Girardi’s gone, but Staal and Holden remain. They should compete for third pair minutes with Alexei Bereglazov and Anthony DeAngelo, not second pair minutes with Skjei and Smith. The Rangers can’t afford to let Vigneault waste this blue line’s potential.