GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Brady Skjei's eyes opened wide and his chin snapped up.
"Brian Leetch?" the New York Rangers rookie defenseman said with surprise and excitement in his voice following practice Tuesday.
Yes, Brian Leetch. That Brian Leetch.
It's one thing for Skjei to hear praise for his play from coaches, teammates and peers. It's another to hear it from the best defenseman in Rangers history.
Leetch has a lot of praise for Skjei as he and the Rangers prepare to start their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Ottawa Senators. Game 1 is at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
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"It is sometimes a different ballgame in the playoffs and some guys that have a good first year aren't able to carry it over," Leetch said. "But he seems to just be going at it the same way, where it doesn't appear to be a different game. When the opportunities are there to get up in the play he's there. When he has to be physical he's certainly doing that. I don't see it as another level up. I see it as a guy with confidence who is excited to play and can play that way."
Skjei had a breakthrough rookie season, good enough to link himself to Leetch in some statistical categories.
He is the first Rangers rookie defenseman since Leetch in 1988-89 with at least 39 points and at least 20 even-strength assists; he had 27, tied for fourth among all NHL defenseman. Skjei was tied for eighth among all NHL defenseman with 32 even-strength points.
"I've heard that comparison [to Leetch] a few times this year and I'm just like, 'It's good to hear but you can't look into that that much,'" Skjei said. "I have so much more hockey to play. He was one of the best American defenseman that ever lived."
Video: NYR@MTL, Gm5: Skjei buries a rebound past Price
No one is comparing what Skjei has done and his potential to what Leetch did in his rookie season, when he won the Calder Trophy, and what he accomplished during his Hall of Fame career, during which he spent 17 of 18 NHL seasons with the Rangers.
However, Skjei arguably is the most impactful rookie defenseman the Rangers have had since Leetch. He also is arguably (or maybe not even arguably) the next-best player the Rangers have on defense after captain Ryan McDonagh.
"I didn't think he'd be the next McDonagh or the next guy that would be here for 10 years, but then I saw him skate and play," Leetch said.
Skjei skates and moves the puck like McDonagh. The pace in the playoffs is perfect for him because of his skating ability.
"He can skate himself out of trouble and skate himself back into the right positions," McDonagh said. "He realized throughout the season when is the time to jump and when is the time to be patient. He's just making real good reads."
There's no better example than how Skjei scored the tying goal in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Montreal Canadiens.
Skjei cut diagonally from the right point to the left circle after the Rangers gained the offensive zone. He noticed that all five Canadiens players on the ice had their backs turned to him as Rangers forward Jimmy Vesey played the puck down to teammate Rick Nash in the right corner. Skjei knew a turnover by Nash or Vesey would create an odd-man rush going the other way, but he trusted his instincts.
Video: MTL@NYR, Gm3: Skjei finds twine off deflection in 3rd
Nash brought the puck to the net under control and still no Canadiens player saw Skjei move into the slot, probably because they didn't expect him to be there. Skjei was wide open and banged in the rebound.
"We talked about it all series, trying to get some looks like that, creeping around the net," McDonagh said. "Both him and I have that ability at times to get back if we need to and it's those difference-maker plays like that that can determine a win in a game."
That goal tied the game 2-2 with 1:32 left in the second period. The Rangers won 3-2 in overtime and closed the series two nights later.
"He figured out early that to stay in the lineup he needed to play to his strengths -- skating, puck movement, offense -- and continue to learn from experience how to play defense and use his size in the NHL," Leetch said. "I think that maturation and confidence grew throughout the season and he continued along that path in the first round. I would be surprised if it doesn't continue."
Skjei played 80 regular-season games and it seemed like each one was better than the one before. He had 20 points (two goals, 18 assists) and averaged 16:35 of ice time in 48 games before the All-Star break. He had 19 points (three goals, 16 assists) and averaged 18:46 of ice time in 32 games after the break.
He had two goals and averaged 18:54 of ice time in the six-game series against Montreal.
"Sometimes you're a rookie so you want to try to prove yourself and you try to do a little too much," McDonagh said. "He's just being real patient in his approach to the game. He's playing a big role and big minutes. And with that role he definitely has some confidence."
As well as the backing of an influential Rangers alumnus.
"He's looked pretty good from the start," Leetch said.