Libor Hajek earned his first NHL assist with 14:56 left in the third period against Winnipeg on Thursday, as Jacob Trouba and Mika Zibanejad combined for an impressive game-tying goal. Save for a roughly 15-second cameo, that was the last action Hajek would see on the night. It’s not exactly a stunner that Head Coach David Quinn would lean on veterans Brady Skjei and Marc Staal in a close game, but benching a 21-year-old shutdown defenseman for practically a whole period in a season that is still about development is certainly a noteworthy decision. I felt it was worth rewatching Hajek’s 12:19 to see what Quinn might have been uneasy about.
Hajek’s first shift of the game nearly ended in disaster, as his (#25) mishandling of a relatively basic lateral pass created a scoring chance for Winnipeg forward Mason Appleton.
If not for an alert Adam Fox, who stepped in and defused the situation, this is a spontaneous partial breakaway, which is about as dangerous of a shooting opportunity as there is in hockey. Particularly so when it’s early in the game and Lundqvist hasn’t seen much action.
Later on the same shift, the Rangers pushed the puck to the offensive zone and eventually cycled it high to Hajek. His attempted backhand across the blueline missed Fox’s tape considerably.
Compared to the earlier misplay, this is a minor, completely forgettable moment in the game. However, these plays add up. The Rangers would love for their creative offensive defenseman to have the puck at the point with an available shooting lane and multiple forwards moving net-front. Instead, Fox is forced to chase the puck and dump it behind the net for a 50-50 puck battle.
It did not get better after that first shift. Hajek had numerous moments where he was clumsy with the puck or made a poor decision, with the consequences ranging from slight inconveniences to Grade-A scoring chances against.
Let’s be fair to Hajek. First of all, Madison Square Garden ice is infamously unforgiving, and particularly so on an early October night when the temperature is pushing 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a safe bet that Hajek will be better off not only as he gains NHL experience, but as he becomes accustomed to MSG specifically.
It’s also the first game of the season and he was hardly the only player to make mistakes. A Skjei turnover led to Winnipeg’s first goal of the game. Fox, whose strength is handling the puck, had multiple errors himself. Go through the entire game and you’re bound to find some unflattering moments for every single defenseman.
Still, Hajek’s issues stood out just a little bit more, and the bigger concern is that this is not new territory for him. When the Rangers acquired him from Tampa Bay back in February of 2018, a scout told Blueshirt Banter that Hajek was “going to struggle moving the puck at the NHL level.” In our prospect rankings this past July, I noted that Hajek “looked overwhelmed often whenever he handled the puck.”
Quinn has already changed up the defensive pairings which, again, says an awful lot about the performances of all six defensemen; not just Hajek. One has to wonder, though, how much patience the Rangers are going to have. The organization was quite fond of how Ryan Lindgren played in the preseason and Brendan Smith can of course fill in.
What was also noticeable in Hajek’s shifts, though, was that he defended quite well. He was extremely proactive in boxing out around the netfront, his spatial awareness was quite good, and he was never out of position. Hajek has shown enough positives to have earned some leash while he works on these parts of his game; certainly more margin for error than the first two periods of the season. But the Rangers do need Hajek to show progress and lessen the frequency of these mistakes soon. Otherwise, it might become someone else’s turn while he attempts to figure it out in the slower-paced AHL.