Much discussion regarding the Rangers, both in terms of immediate and future concerns, revolves around the defense. Team defense has been subpar (to say the least) the whole season. There are decisions to be made for the Seattle Expansion Draft in 2021.
A common theme within these discussions from both the media and the fanbase is an assumption that Libor Hajek will be a notable part of the backline going forward. That seems premature at best.
The Athletic caused somewhat of a brouhaha when they left Hajek exposed in their mock expansion draft for Seattle. No doubt, it defies logic that the Rangers would be contenting giving away a 23-year-old NHL-caliber defenseman.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse.
We don’t need to regurgitate an entire analysis of last year’s deadline trade with Tampa Bay, but the Rangers were thrilled to share publicly how Hajek was a mandatory inclusion in any trade they were going to make with Tampa Bay. Despite that, I offered a lukewarm analysis of Hajek over the summer. Now, I’m even less confident in his future.
It’s not his defensive game that raises concern. Has he made mistakes or shown his inexperience in Hartford this season at times? Sure. That’s hardly a surprise. This is a 20-year-old making a leap up from juniors to pro hockey, and Hartford is by no means sheltering him. He’s playing against quality AHL talent most nights, and in that regard he doesn’t look out of place. He battles hard and covers his assignments in the defensive zone.
Nonetheless, his lack of offensive output is a massive red flag, and let’s expound what exactly that means. The idea here is not that Hajek must be an offensive juggernaut. That has never been his game, it never will be, and that is completely fine. Physical but slow and clumsy defensemen have gone the way of the dinosaur, but there is still plenty of room in the NHL for mobile, intelligent shutdown defensemen. In the general sense, Hajek fits that mold.
However, even the players who made it to the next level produced a decent amount of offense at lower levels. Or, at the very least, more than Hajek has so far.
Lets first point out that these guys beat the odds to begin with. For every defenseman with those numbers who makes the NHL, there are 10 others who toil in the minor leagues for their whole careers. Let’s also note that very few of these guys qualify (or in the past qualified) as bonafide top-four defensemen. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve that level with minimal offensive contributions.
That’s all besides the point because Hajek isn’t even within range of most of these players. Forget about the likes of Nicklas Hjalmarsson or Chris Tanev. Hajek isn’t in the ballpark of depth defensemen like of Slater Koekkoek, Scott Mayfield, and Freddie Claesson.
It’s not about point production itself, but rather transferrable skills. If you’re an AHL player who can do a decent enough job of creating zone exits, making smart choices with the puck, pinching at the right times, and so on, then you’re going to tally a few points as a byproduct. That Hajek has not suggests there are some problems. If Clayton Stoner and Patrik Nemeth lack the skills to produce points in the NHL, then what does that say for a defenseman who isn’t even producing at half their AHL rates?
I look at a play like this as a perfect example of Hajek at both his best and worst.
All of that phenomenal work to skate the puck out of danger only to negate it once he reaches the neutral zone and has to make a pass. He struggles in these kinds of situations where he has limited space to make a decision with the puck.
The typical “yeah, but...” that comes up when discussing defensive defensemen concerns usage. In Hajek’s case, that’s not an impediment. Hartford puts him in all sorts of situations, including offensive shifts with skilled players on the ice. In fact, he’s even received power play time. That has... not gone well.
Here are a few silver linings that do offer some hope. First, Hajek is at least generating a decent clip of shots on goal. He ranks slightly above average in shots-per-game for AHL defensemen. Even under the assumption that these were all low-percentage shots, one would expect Hajek to at least have a goal, maybe even two. On the other hand, I don’t think he’s being screwed by the Hockey Gods. Lack of shooting ability is a weakness in Hajek’s game.
Hartford is also just not an impressive offensive team overall. The lineup lacked firepower to begin with, and numerous call-ups by the Rangers depleted the AHL lineup at times. Hartford ranks 24th out of 31 teams by shots-per-game and 23rd in goals-per-game. The cynic can point out that Hajek is a small reason why they’re struggling to score, but on a different team maybe he would have a few more points to his name.
Finally, we are still only talking about a 20-year-old with 28 AHL games to his name. That’s not fringe sample, but it’s hardly career defining, either. One would hope that Hajek is developing and therefore will be better in February than he was in October. If we are to use the 2021 Seattle Expansion Draft as our unofficial clock for Hajek’s development, then there is still plenty of time for him to improve and start producing some points.
Until he does, though, there is every reason to be skeptical of the idea that he will become a quality player, if even an NHL defenseman at all.