On Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, Brady Skjei played what David Quinn called "Brady's best game so far" in the 2019 preseason, and to Skjei himself, it's not much of a mystery why.
"I was skating," Skjei said. "I was jumping into the play when it was there. When I'm skating, that's when I'm at my best."
Playing in his third tune-up game this preseason, Skjei had his skating legs going and more: He was moving the puck effectively - he had a pair of assists, one of them a sweet setup for rookie Vitali Kravtsov, and a plus-3 rating in the Rangers' 3-1 exhibition win - while teaming with new blue-line partner Jacob Trouba to hold the Islanders' top trio of Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle off the scoresheet while they were on the ice together.
"Obviously he's a guy that we're counting heavily on, and he had a strong second half last year," Quinn said on Wednesday. "Obviously there's a little bit different look for our D corps this year, and I think he's going to be in a better position to hit the ground running and have the season we're expecting him to have. I certainly like the direction that his camp is going."
Entering his fourth full season as a Ranger since being drafted by the club in the first round in 2012, Skjei, 25 years old, enters a new season with a new D partner (an old friend) and what might feel like a new start. His third regular-season game in 2019-20 will be No. 250 of his NHL career, and his leadership stature continues to grow in a room in which he is the fifth-longest tenured Ranger, behind Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast.
His friendship with that new defense partner goes back much further than that, when Skjei and Trouba were together as teenagers at the U.S. National Team Development Program. Both players have spoken about how Skjei has helped Trouba as he gets settled into living in Manhattan, and playing with a roomful of new teammates; on Wednesday, Skjei spoke a bit about how Trouba can help him this season in the kind of top-pair role the two are primed to tackle.
"I think me and Troubs have gotten better each game we've gotten" in the preseason, Skjei said. "He's such a steady defenseman, and he's a defenseman that can play in all situations, and being with him allows me to play in all situations as well. It helps with confidence, too.
"(Wednesday) night playing against their team's top line - that's our goal, is to try to shut down those guys. And if the offense is there, it'll come. But we feel like we know where our focus is and we definitely feel good about it right now."
On the offensive side, Skjei's eight goals last season established a new career high, and his first of 2018-19 - just shy of one year ago, last Oct. 11 - was an overtime goal at the Garden against the San Jose Sharks. It delivered Quinn his first win as a National Hockey League head coach.
But it came amid something of a tale of two seasons: Skjei was always forthright about struggling, mentally as much as physically, to find his game out of the gate. But he seemed to arrive before Christmas did, and by the time the year was out he had career highs in goals, blocked shots and ice time, his 21:14 average leading the 2018-19 Rangers. Skjei finished the season with 11 points (5-6--11) in the final 22 games, then followed that up with a strong showing in eight games for the United States at the World Championships.
Given his experience last year, and given the shape and mindset he has brought into camp this year, both player and coach envision a faster start.
"I just think that people sometimes lose sight of the fact that he was still young, 24, 25 years old, and he's a guy that cares so much that he doesn't want to let people down," Quinn said. "He signed a well-deserved contract, and I think he put a lot of undue pressure on himself. I think he didn't want to let himself down, he didn't want to let his teammates down, he didn't want to let the organization down and he didn't want to let the fans down. So that's a lot of self-induced pressure. Really, he's such a great person and wants to please people, I think that was part of the burden that he carried."
"It's another year in the league, and it's another year of maturity," Skjei said of his 2018-19. "In the back of my mind, I was thinking I needed to do too much. I've played another year now and gone through it, and I felt I ended the year strong last year. And some of the things maybe I was worrying about, I'm not worrying.
"There's things I'm going to take and learn from that. Obviously I don't want to go back there. But I know what I need to do now moving forward, and what makes me successful as a hockey player, what helps this team win. That's all I want to do."