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October 3, 2018

The Young Shall Lead The Young(er)

As the Rangers launch the new season, they turn to a new generation of team leaders to help guide a bumper crop of fresh talent.

Shoulder to shoulder, 24-year-old Brady Skjei is now the wise big brother to Filip Chytil, who turned 19 just a month ago. In counseling the younger players, he says, "I know exactly what they're going through." (Photo: Rebecca Taylor/MSG Photos)

The evolution of the new-feel New York Rangers began in its way more than two years ago when Brady Skjei, all of seven games under his belt, found himself in the heat of the postseason. At times shadowing Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, nose to nose with Evgeni Malkin, his assignment was to somehow step into the limelight when it mattered most.

He allowed himself a small breath, to turn away the sensation that none of this could be real. Then, as if willing it, the game slowed for him and a crystal clear thought settled in — that he could handle this, that he belonged.

Tonight, the Rangers launch the 2018-19 season at Madison Square Garden with a new coach, a rejuvenated roster and a realigned master plan. Rather than creating a one-year wonder, the accent rests now on building a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out. When the puck drops against the Nashville Predators, the Rangers can count among them a half-dozen players 23 and younger, including one teenager, a 20-year-old, and a cadre of high-tier prospects tapping at the door in the minor leagues.

While veterans Kevin Shattenkirk, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider are back, the team’s reshaping has nudged a few players into unlikely roles as mentors to others nearly the same age.

In other words, the young will be shepherding the young.

Skjei, a 24-year-old with the sharp-eyed look of a born leader (he was a high school quarterback), has been delegated by head coach David Quinn to help guide greenhorns like Neal Pionk, 23, and Tony DeAngelo, 22, who, like Skjei, are both defensemen.

Sounding the part, Skjei prides himself, he says, on an ability to “pick up on social cues, to sense if a teammate may need a little support.”

“A leader is an even-keel guy who can adapt to all situations,” he said. “The coaching staff made it clear that I can help our young core of guys.”

He has counseled Pionk and DeAngelo to trust their skills, telling them, “there’s a reason why you’re here.”

 

MSG’s John Giannone at the Beacon Theatre with the Rangers’ chief architects — head coach David Quinn, general manager Jeff Gorton and team president Glen Sather. “Fast. Physical Relentless.” Those are the pillars of success for each player,” says Quinn. “And they are “non-negotiable.” (Photo: Carly Boyle/MSG Photos)

Likewise, Kevin Hayes — a graybeard at 26 — is using his gentle way to help steer Filip Chytil, a month past his 19th birthday, as well as Brett Howden, a fledgling 20-year-old.

“Confidence is everything,” says Hayes, keenly relating to his fresh-faced teammates. “At first, you’re just happy to be here and you don’t want to mess up. But then you need the freedom to show your skills.”

The full circle dynamic is by design, says Quinn, himself a rookie NHL head coach. Role models like the former captain, Ryan McDonagh, and Dan Girardi, traded away in the youth movement, were groomed as leaders early on before showing the way for the team’s new voices.

“That’s the key to any successful organization,” Quinn says. “Players watch and emulate the players who came before.”

 

A Season Of Firsts

The new season is coming with a different sort of buzz, with fans appreciating the big-picture approach. A few nights ago, around a thousand of them gathered at the Beacon Theatre to hear Quinn, team president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton lay out their vision and expectations.

“For the organization to tell us what’s up, to say this is the process, that’s really appreciated,” said Patrick Keogh, seated next to his father, a season ticket holder since 1968. “Win or lose, I like the idea that we’re going to watch young players go through all their firsts, especially when you sense they are going to be the real deal.”

Nearby, Phyllis Cunningham said it was hard to see some of her favorite Rangers go, but she has turned the page and envisions this season as “a learning year.”

The new coach, pushing players into new slots, has no issue with that idea.

“It’s like putting together a band,” he says. “You have a drummer, a bass player, someone on guitar, on clarinet. But you can’t have five lead singers. You need someone to play that part.”

 

If you’re interested in tickets for the Rangers’ 2018-19 season, click here.


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