GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Goalie Mackenzie Skapski's road to recovery began in the upstate region of South Carolina, a long way from First Niagara Center in Buffalo, where the New York Rangers prospect enjoyed a sip of NHL glory after shutting out the Buffalo Sabres in his second NHL start.
Five months after Skapski had arthroscopic surgery to repair a labral tear in right hip on June 2, 2015, he was playing for Greenville of the ECHL. Skapski at one point seemed on track to back up Henrik Lundqvist in New York. Instead, the Rangers acquired veteran goalie Antti Raanta in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Ryan Haggerty on June 27, 2015. Skapski had to start over in Greenville and rework his way up the depth chart.
Fast forward to the Rangers' recent development camp, where Skapski was renewed, energized and eager to hit the reset button. He took his position for skating drills and scrimmages in the best shape of his life after working with a strength and mobility coach in Vancouver, determined to pick up where he left off the night of March 14, 2015, when he made 20 saves for his first NHL shutout at the age of 20.
"Obviously last year was a tough year with the injury and [I] wasn't where I wanted to be physically," Skapski said. "I'm happy I came here to show the staff that I'm ready to go and be back to where I want to be, and take a step off the year before. I'm there physically. There should be no excuses, and off to the races come September."
Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark was impressed with Skapski's ability to handle a tough situation and willingness to put in his time in the ECHL.
"He's trained, he's gotten the hip done, so he's not afraid of hard work," Clark said. "He's going to be an interesting player. He might have been the backup right now. We got Raanta signed when [Cam] Talbot was traded [to the Edmonton Oilers prior to last season]. Skapski might have been in that mix, but he was injured. We have to see how he comes back off it."
The Rangers' sixth-round pick (No. 170) in the 2013 NHL Draft, Skapski, now 22, is 2-0-0 with an 0.50 goals-against average in his brief time in the League. He'll be a restricted free agent after this season, and there's no telling what his future holds. Lundqvist is signed through 2020-21. Raanta agreed to terms on a two-year contract May 2. Magnus Hellberg started for Hartford of the American Hockey League last season, and the Rangers system also includes goalies Brandon Halverson, Igor Shesterkin and Tyler Wall.
Skapski is projected to compete with Hellberg in Hartford this season with the goal of making an impression on the Rangers or another NHL team to give him a long look down the road.
"I'm happy with my situation right now," Skapski said. "Obviously there's a lot of goalies in the system, but that proves to other teams that if you surpass those guys, you're a legit prospect. I'm really looking forward to next year. I'm confident I'm going to have a good year. I'm excited to be here and I'm feeling the best I felt since hip surgery, physically."
Skapski also is eager to put last season in the rearview minor. After he was recalled to Hartford on Nov. 13, he won two of 10 appearances and was sent back to Greenville, where he went 5-14-4-1 with a 3.26 GAA and .901 save percentage. But once back in Hartford, Skapski finished with a flourish, going 2-1-0 with a 1.65 GAA before they were eliminated from playoff contention with one game left in the regular season.
"When I look at the games he played for us down the stretch, that was more the Mackenzie Skapski that we were expecting," Hartford coach Ken Gernander said. "Even in my mind's eye I'm looking at a kid who was still less than one year out from that surgery. I think that's very encouraging. The experiences in Greenville certainly got him ready for that situation, but also probably made him a tougher person mentally, because that was a challenge for him."
Gernander will have to decide if he'll stick with Hellberg or go with a rejuvenated Skapski to perhaps be in line for another NHL call-up in the event of an injury to Lundqvist or Raanta. Those two games against Buffalo is a small sample size but an enticing one, and Skapski is confident he'll be able to build on it.
All he needs now is a chance to shine.
"Obviously I need to take a couple of more steps and prove to these guys I'm legit in the National Hockey League," Skapski said. "I'm fully willing to do that, and I'm excited and prepared to make that next step one day."