By Sean Hartnett
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Nearly a month has passed since the Rangers were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Throughout a one-sided series, it became crystal clear that the Blueshirts are going to need an influx of youth and speed, something their opponents had in waves.
A necessary part of that retooling should be promoting from within. American defenseman Brady Skjei and Danish winger Nicklas Jensen have enjoyed strong campaigns at the IIHF World Championship in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Skjei was the Rangers' most illuminating bright spot during the playoffs. The 22-year-old blueliner demonstrated two-way steadiness and versatility under pressure. Skjei was called upon by head coach Alain Vigneault to alternate between the left and right side, and was trusted with key minutes on the power play and penalty kill. He averaged 18:28 of ice time per night and collected two assists in five playoff games.
"I think he's played extremely well for a young man that has been put in playoff hockey with a very limited amount of experience," Vigneault said of Skjei during the series. "I've said this many times -- talent has no age. For the most part, other than a couple of decisions with the puck, I think his overall game has been very solid. Whether you're a coach or a teammate, you feel comfortable when he's on the ice."
Skjei has continued his tendencies of being effective and reliable at the World Championship, helping Team USA to a 2-1 shootout victory over the Czech Republic to set up a highly-anticipated semifinal meeting with Canada on Saturday. USA and Canada will face off at 1:15 p.m. EDT at the VTB Ice Palace in Moscow.
The Lakeville, Minnesota native logged 21 minutes against the Czechs and has only been whistled for two penalty minutes through eight tournament games. Rangers teammate Raphael Diaz was able to study Skjei closely as they were paired together for much of the 2015-16 season at AHL Hartford.
"I knew right away when I saw (Skjei) skating for the first time that he was an unbelievable player," Diaz told WFAN.com during the playoffs. "He's a big guy, he's calm on the ice, he makes great decisions and great plays. He plays hard as well. When the forecheck is coming, he makes good plays. As his partner, you knew he was going to skate it out or he'll make a good first pass. He always made the right decisions."
Diaz finished the tournament with six assists in five games before Switzerland was eliminated from Group A.
Jensen's tournament ended on Thursday, as Denmark was defeated 5-1 by Finland in the quarterfinal stage. The 23-year-old winger made his mark in Russia, opening a lot of eyes with his speed, creativity and wicked shootout moves. Jensen finished with seven points, including five goals, in seven games.
The 6-foot-3 forward was acquired by the Rangers on Jan. 8, when they shipped struggling winger Emerson Etem to the Vancouver Canucks. New York also netted a 2017 sixth-round pick in the deal. After joining AHL Hartford, Jensen collected 15 goals and 10 assist in 41 games and developed a reputation for being a well-rounded winger.
There will be places up for grabs among bottom-six forward spots during training camp. Oscar Lindberg is expected to miss the first month of next season after undergoing succesful hip surgery, Viktor Stalberg is a pending unrestricted free agent and is in line for a raise above the $1.1 million he earned last season. It's unclear whether Stalberg or fellow UFA center Dominic Moore will be retained.
Jensen's contract last season paid him $832,500 at the NHL level and $70,000 in the AHL. The Herning, Denmark native is a pending restricted free agent. He could be an affordable option for the Rangers next season and plays with the kind of speed that makes him an ideal fit for Vigneault's uptempo leaning.
Meanwhile, Derick Brassard has shown scintillating form in Russia. The 28-year-old center scored the final goal in Canada's 6-0 rout of Sweden on Thursday. Brassard has 10 points in eight tournament games.
Rangers fans will have plenty of reason to keep a close eye on Saturday's USA-Canada semifinal with Skjei and Brassard lining up on opposite sides. Skjei will have a chance to flex his top-four defenseman potential against the scoring-rich Canadians. If he can put in a shutdown performance and help USA to the gold medal game, Skjei will have proven his ability to produce under pressure once again. It's clear he's going to be a major part of the Rangers' plans for years to come.
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