Let’s jump into our time machine to February 26th, 2018. Rumors of the New York Rangers trading captain Ryan McDonagh had come to a head when it was announced that he along with JT Miller had been traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. In return, the Rangers received a first round pick in the 2018 Entry Draft, a conditional second round pick in 2019, Vladislav Namestnikov and 2 prospects, forward Brett Howden and a Czech defenseman named Libor Hajek. Many saw this trade as a good start to the rebuild announced just a couple of weeks prior in a letter sent out by Rangers management. As we approach the 2 year anniversary of this transaction, this article will focus on Libor Hajek and why he’s yet to establish himself as an NHL defenseman.
Originally drafted 37th overall in 2016 by Tampa Bay, Hajek was seen as a two way defenseman who had a knack for finding and creating openings up ice to move the puck from the defensive zone while boasting good speed and decent shot. As a defender, it was said that his speed was key in chasing the rush and more often than not found himself with good positioning and coverage on the back end and wasn’t known to stand around when the puck was moving. With that in mind, many thought that Hajek was going to be a serious contender for a spot on the Rangers roster going into 2018 even if it meant starting the season here in Hartford. As it would turn out, he would start the season here with the Pack and get off to a good start with 4 SOG and was a +5 in the first 3 games that season. It seemed that Hajek had made the transition to the pro game seamlessly, that he was the two way defenseman putting the puck where it needed to be, setting up the rush and keeping pucks from getting to the net.
October 24th, 2018 would see Libor Hajek pick up his first point against Lehigh Valley and finish the month with the lone assist and a +3 and 20 SOG. November saw him pick up 2 more assists but also saw him begin trending downward. He was taking fewer shots, wasn’t showing the speed and offensive skill that was touted by many scouts and also began making more and more defensive mistakes. The downward trend continued all the way though February 28th 2019 when it was announced that Libor Hajek would be called up to the NHL for the first time, a move that many here in Hartford questioned based on his numbers and having not lived up to expectations. Was it possible that David Quinn and Jeff Gorton saw something in Libor Hajek’s progression that warranted a recall? Was it possible that a change in scenery was in order?
For whatever that reason was, Hajek was in New York and was set to debut on March 1st against the Montreal Canadiens. In his debut, he logged 17:35 of ice time and had 2 SOG in a 4-2 loss with the biggest takeaway being that he looked composed, collected and drew praise from teammates and coaches, Henrik Lundqvist among them. Just over a week later at MSG and against the New Jersey Devils, Hajek scored his first NHL goal at 1:29 of the 3rd period before disaster struck. Later in the game he would suffer a separated shoulder thus ending his season. Despite the good start to his NHL career, Libor Hajek’s first pro season was considered a disappointment as in 58 AHL games with the Wolf Pack he would net 5 assists, 72 total SOG, 36 PIM and was a -26, tied for worst +/- on the team. 5 games with the Rangers saw only the one goal, 6 PIM, a +1 and 10 SOG.
Ups and Downs
With the disappointment of 2018-19 behind him, Libor Hajek was keen to turn things around heading into this season. Things seemed to start off well as Hajek had made the Rangers out of training camp ahead of Ryan Lindgren whom many believed was more NHL ready after having a solid rookie season and a good camp. Through the first 2 months of the season, Hajek did not show much improvement if any, making the same defensive mistakes and inconsistencies that were seen with the Pack last season. Hajek would miss a month of the season with a knee sprain suffered against Columbus on December 5th but would return on January 11th against St. Louis where he would find himself on the ice for 4 goals scored by the defending Stanley Cup champions and was shaky for most of the game according to many who were following his return. Three days later it was announced that the Rangers would assign Hajek here to play with the Wolf Pack so he could find a rhythm and shake off any rust from the knee injury. He would make his season debut on January 15th in Utica registering as a -1 with one shot on goal but would bounce back 2 nights later picking up an assist in a 6-3 loss to the Comets.
Since then, Hajek has shown flashes of being a good two way defenseman moving the puck and starting the rush but lacks any consistency. His defensive game hasn’t been as good. Having observed him the last few games, he’s been seen standing around in front of the net, leaving players open, and not using the body when he should be. Through 10 games here in Hartford this season, Hajek has 2 assists, 19 SOG and is -4 and has 5 assists in 28 games with the Rangers this season and also a -4 with 23 shots. The effort is there on the offensive side of the puck as he’s shooting the puck, moving it and skating well. On the back end, Hajek seems lost at times and as mentioned, not aggressive enough, making himself a liability for a much improved Wolf Pack defense.
Finding His Way
When looking back at the trade that brought Libor Hajek and the rest to the Rangers, we see that Brett Howden has been a fixture in the Rangers lineup since making his NHL debut last season, Vladislav Namestnikov is with Ottawa for Nick Ebert, the draft picks used to take Nils Lundkvist in 2018 and Karl Henriksson in 2019. However the 22 year old Hajek has been disappointing and over his head even at the AHL level. While it’s still too early to label Libor Hajek a bust, it’s hard for one to not keep that thought in the back of one’s head when you compare him to the other pieces involved in this trade. Bottom line for Libor Hajek, he needs to find his game and bring it every night. If he doesn’t, he could find himself among the many forgotten prospects that never worked out in New York.