Swift-skating Skjei shows the makeup of an NHL first-rounder

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2012 - 2:55 PM

The future U defenseman learned hockey in Lakeville, honed his skills in Ann Arbor and could be selected Friday night in Pittsburgh.

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Brady Skjei, an incoming Gopher from Lakeville who played for the U.S. development program in Ann Arbor, Mich., is expected to be a first-round pick in the NHL draft on Friday.

Photo: USA Hockey, Tom Sorensen

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No Minnesota-born hockey player was taken in the first round of last year's NHL draft for the first time in a decade.

That shouldn't be the case this year.

It's expected that Brady Skjei, a 6-3, 200-pound, puck-moving defenseman from Lakeville, will be called to the stage Friday night in Pittsburgh.

Skjei -- pronounced "Shay" -- is projected to be drafted a dozen selections or so after the Wild chooses at No. 7, but Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr calls the incoming Gopher "maybe the best skater in the draft."

That shouldn't come as a shock.

One of Skjei's uncles is Barry Karn, one of the top power-skating instructors in the country. Karn has worked for five NHL teams, including the past six years for Calgary, and is a consultant for the Wild, having worked primarily with its prospects.

"Ever since Brady was a little kid and we were just pushing him around on a chair just trying to make sure he was having fun at the rink, skating has been his strong suit," said Karn, who owns Karn Skating Dynamics in St. Louis Park with his wife, Jodi. "Obviously, it's just progressed from there. He's worked really hard at his skating."

And it's the foundation of Skjei's game.

Moving away

After going to the state tournament as a sophomore at Lakeville North, Skjei left to join the USA Hockey national development team program in Ann Arbor, Mich. He had 22 points in 56 games this past season.

He won consecutive Under-18 world championships, leading the tournament in April in plus-minus (plus-10). Since, he has been rising up the draft charts. He was the No. 19 rated North American skater in the final rankings by the NHL's Central Scouting Service.

"It was hard to leave high school hockey in Minnesota. I loved it," said Skjei, 18, who became a defenseman because his longtime youth coach, Tony Winiecki, told him the best skaters always play defense. "But I felt I needed to improve my game for sure, and I felt Ann Arbor was probably the best place for me to get bigger, stronger and coached.

"I feel I've become an all-around defenseman. In high school hockey, I liked to skate it up a ton and play a lot of offense. I feel they've taught me to play both ends of the rink in Ann Arbor. And I've put on 25 pounds."

While Skjei is not going to punish you or throw you through the boards like probable top-10 pick and NTDP teammate Jacob Trouba will, Skjei knows how to push opponents off their tracking, read plays well and is calm under pressure, said Craig Button, a former NHL general manager who is an analyst for TSN and the NHL Network.

"What he's developed more than anything is the confidence in his game," said Button. "He became very assured of his play on the ice. He's an excellent skater, and I mean his balance, agility and quickness. He gets the puck out of trouble real quick, and he does it with a good pass or skating four feet to open up a lane.

"And while he doesn't put up a lot of points, he's a guy that'll help your offense. Because his skating is so good, he'll hold the offensive blue line and not back out. And he'll get the puck out of his own zone and get it forward."

Family ties

Skjei has a great pedigree. His grandfather, Stan Skjei, and uncle, Brett Sadek, both played football at the University of Minnesota. Stan Skjei was a longtime football coach at Bloomington Jefferson.

A star athlete who excelled in football, baseball and golf, Brady Skjei got the hockey bug as a child when he watched Karn's son, Beau, who is 10 years older, play high school hockey at Jefferson. Over the past three summers, Skjei has worked for the Karns at their skating clinics.

"It's been amazing watching his development," Karn said. "We haven't seen him stop maturing in his game. He keeps adding little things to it. Who knows where that'll end?"

It's been an amazing year for Skjei, from committing to the Gophers, to winning another gold medal, to being drafted somewhere this weekend in Pittsburgh.

His father, Scott; mother, Michele; brother, Ramsey; grandparents and two sets of aunts and uncles will be along for the ride.

"Right now, I'm just taking it all in," Skjei said. "I'm already taking classes at the U, and it's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid to play here. And now, [the draft]? This has just been awesome and an incredible experience so far."

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