The New York Rangers defense changed dramatically from last season. Rookies Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren became the team’s top defense pair, Jacob Trouba added grit and toughness to the team and the Blueshirts traded Brady Skjei to the Carolina Hurricanes for a first-round pick. Lost in all those moves, was Libor Hajek’s demotion to the Hartford Wolf Pack. Despite his struggles last season, he is still just 22-years-old and can contribute to New York next season.
Hajek Has Potential
Hajek was selected in the second round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers acquired him in 2018 in the trade that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay. At the time of the trade, scouts raved about his defensive play and said that he had the size, strength and skating ability to be an effective player in the NHL.
The blueliner spent the majority of the 2018-19 season with the Wolf Pack in the American Hockey League (AHL). He failed to produce offensively, finishing with no goals and five assists in 58 games. However, he showed he could make clean breakout passes from the defensive zone and enough potential to get called up and make his NHL debut.
He was impressive in his five games. Hajek was solid defensively and also showed off good instincts, understanding when to pinch to keep the puck in the offensive zone. He showed poise with the puck and even scored his first NHL goal. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury in the same game, which kept him out for the rest of the season.
Hajek’s 2019-20 Season
Hajek’s play in those five games along with a decent training camp performance earned him a spot in the opening day lineup for the Blueshirts this past season. He got off to a rough start, struggling defensively and repeatedly making turnovers in his own zone during the first few games of the season. Rather than benching the young blueliner, or sending him back to the AHL, the Rangers decided to pair him with the newly acquired Trouba.
Hajek’s play improved after he was paired with Trouba. He was solid defensively but still didn’t look as confident as he did in his five games with New York in the 2018-19 season. He was adequate defensively but was very cautious and failed to produce much offensively.
Hajek had no goals and five assists in 28 games before spraining his knee and having Lindgren replace him in the lineup. Lindgren was excellent and cemented his spot on the roster so when Hajek recovered he was sent back to the Wolf Pack. He once again failed to stand out in the AHL, playing fairly well defensively, and finishing with one goal and two assists in 23 games.
While this certainly wasn’t the season the Rangers hoped Hajek would have, he is still young and has shown enough potential that he should get another chance with New York next season. This postseason the Rangers started Marc Staal and Brendan Smith but both are candidates to be traded or bought out this offseason. If that happens, Hajek will likely be called up as a replacement.
He can also earn a spot in the lineup by outplaying the veteran Smith, who spent the majority of last season as a forward before switching back to defense after Skjei was traded. Lindgren did the same thing last season. The Blueshirts would be happy to move Smith back to forward if there is a more deserving defenseman.
Hajek will have plenty of competition to get back in the Rangers’ lineup since they have lots of prospects on defense. However, he is older and has NHL experience which gives him an advantage over prospects like K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. Hajek should be used to the speed of the game at the NHL level by now.
Hajek may not have spent much time with the Rangers last season but he can still earn a spot in the team’s lineup next season.