Yesterday, Colin Stephenson reported that New York Rangers rookie defenseman Libor Hajek would likely be making his NHL debut tonight against the Montreal Canadiens. Hajek skated with Neal Pionk in yesterday’s practice and has been receiving words of wisdom and support from Pionk and others in the Rangers locker room. There’s an excellent chance that tonight could be the start of his NHL career.
“I was in the gym after the game — we played yesterday — and the coach just grabbed me and told me in his office. It was a great feeling.”— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 28, 2019
Libor Hajek on how he found out he would be joining #NYR today. pic.twitter.com/zLRrk9MHcc
In mid-December, Blueshirt Banter’s Adam Herman wrote an insightful and provocative article suggesting that the Rangers needed more from the then 20-year-old. Despite some of the debate that it sparked, it was undoubtedly a fair assessment. Herman turned a spotlight on Hajek’s modest offensive production in his first AHL season. Since that piece, Hajek’s counting stats have not accelerated in any meaningful way.
Hajek has zero goals, five assists, and 72 shots in 58 games this season with the Wolf Pack. Before being called up to the Rangers, he had two assists — one of which was secondary — in his last 40 games. It’s also worth noting that he’s currently leading all AHL rookie defensemen in games played. Even on a team that has struggled like Hartford, those are not the kinds of numbers you hope to see from a prized prospect.
The former Lightning prospect has played primarily with Chris Bigras and Brandon Crawley. Hajek’s numbers would certainly look a little bit different if he was sharing ice time with John Gilmour — who has 16 goals this season — but that is not the role that head coach Keith McCambridge has carved out for the rookie. It appears that Hajek has been focusing on defense first, which explains why we’ve seen so much of him on Hartford’s penalty kill.
“It’s [my] first year pro, so still kind of getting used to it,” Hajek said when asked about some of the ups and downs he’s experienced in Hartford this season. “It wasn’t — it’s not [been] the greatest season. It’s [been] pretty tough, but I just keep working hard and trying to play my game.”
Hajek is under a lot of pressure in New York due to no fault of his own. He was, of course, a key asset in the trade that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning. An early pick in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft, the Czech defenseman had 39 points in 58 games in his final year in the WHL in 2017-18. There are a lot of eyes on him and a lot of people hoping that he can be a key part of this rebuild. The bottom line is that he’s not that player yet, and we shouldn’t expect him to be.
If Hajek is on the ice tonight he’s going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. After all, we’re talking about a kid who turned 21 less than a month ago; a kid who has the third-worst 5v5 goals for percentage among the Wolf Pack’s defensemen; a kid playing in his first NHL game. Hopefully, it will be a positive experience for the 6-foot-2 lefty.
Data courtesy of AHLtracker.com, theAHL.com.