Since arriving from the Tampa Bay Lightning as a player the Rangers’ specifically targeted in the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller trade, Libor Hajek hadn’t quite lived up to the expectations he arrived with. A strong five game cameo during the back half of the 2018-19 campaign appeared to be the start of something special, but Hajek was one of the worst defenseman in the league in the 28 games he skated before mercifully being demoted to AHL Hartford for the final two months of the 2019-20 season.
With K’Andre Miller’s arrival adding a highly touted prospect into the mix, as well as the questionable decision to sign Jack Johnson, the left side of New York’s defense appeared to be filled up. Hajek began the COVID-shortened campaign as a member of the team’s taxi squad, and even saw veteran defenseman Anthony Bitetto earn a promotion to the main roster ahead of him initially.
Hajek skated his first game of the season on February 4th, the Blueshirts’ 10th game of the season, and skated in all but three of the team’s games from that point onwards. Hajek was primarily paired up with Brendan Smith, but also spent time alongside Bitetto, Johnson, Miller, and Adam Fox as the season started to wind down. The results were......not great:
Boxcar Stats: 44 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 33 SOG, 15:16 TOI/GP, 10 PIM, -1 Penalty Differential
5-on-5 Analytical Metrics: 0.36 Points/60, -11.64 Relative CF%, -10.50 Relative SF%, -4.12 Relative GF%, -10.79 Relative xGF%, -10.28 Relative SCF%, 103.7 On-Ice PDO, -3.0 GAR
To say Hajek struggled at the NHL level for a second consecutive season would be a massive understatement. The 23 year old Czech defenseman finished dead last on the Rangers in all of the above metrics that reflect the territorial battle. Shots, shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals, you name it.
Not only did he finish last on the Rangers, but Hajek was among the dregs of the entire league in all of those numbers as well. Only Anaheim Ducks’ defenseman Jamie Drysdale, Anaheim’s 2020 first round pick that turned 19 in April and was force fed premium minutes for a terrible Ducks team, was in Hajek’s neighborhood
The only thing salvaging New York’s 5-on-5 goal share while Hajek was on the ice was a ludicrously high 94.23 on-ice save percentage, which has shown to be something individual players cannot control. His on-ice PDO trailed Artemiy Panarin by a tenth of a point for tops on the roster, and given the difference in Panarin and Hajek’s offensive capabilities, (I.e. their ability to drive the on-ice shooting percentage portion of PDO) it’s fair to say that Hajek was the luckiest player on the team in terms of his bad play not being as noticeable.
Remember if Adam Fox doesn't get a Norris nod we all know what/who did it (I'm somewhat joking here...?)— Rob Luker (@RLuker12) June 9, 2021
(Also lol at Hajek 0.948 on-ice save % which dragged his GF% up to 55 - this is partially why some people think he was "better" this past year). pic.twitter.com/NAoDZQyNCs
The Tony DeAngelo situation cracked the door open for Hajek to establish himself as a capable NHL player in limited minutes, and the subsequent injury to Jack Johnson basically resulted in an everyday lineup spot being handed to him. Even with Tarmo Reunanen performing well in Hartford, Jeff Gorton and John Davidson opted to keep Hajek with the big club in spite of his struggles.
David Quinn opted to send Hajek over the boards on a nightly basis to the detriment of his team. All three of those men are gone, and with Hajek scheduled to be a restricted free agent and not having done anything to justify a second contract, his future on Broadway is in doubt.
At 23 years old and three professional seasons in the books, there’s not much reason for optimism about Hajek going forward. He’s been dominated throughout his time in the NHL, hasn’t done anything at the AHL level to prove that competition to be below him, and has already been surpassed by a number of other young defenseman on the left side of the blue line.
Miller, Reunanen, and Zac Jones all made their NHL debuts this season and were more effective than Hajek has ever been. Ryan Lindgren was Adam Fox’s left hand man on Fox’s way to a Norris-caliber season, and the three year extension he just signed locks him in as LD1 for the foreseeable future. Brendan Smith had a bounce back season after moving back to defense from forward, and with the Blueshirts seemingly on a quest to toughen themselves up as a team, seeing the team’s toughest, grittiest player currently on the roster return on a low cost deal wouldn’t be a shock.
In spite of his place as 5th or 6th on the left side of the defensive depth chart, the Blueshirts may opt to protect Hajek from selection in the upcoming expansion draft. The three rookies from this past season are all exempt from selection, as is Adam Fox. Lindgren and Jacob Trouba will account for two of the three protection slots for defenseman.
With Brendan Smith set to enter unrestricted free agency, the Rangers are highly unlikely to protect him over Hajek. There’s an argument to be made that protecting Smith’s UFA rights and exposing Hajek and hoping he gets selected by Seattle is the big brain move to make, but NHL GM’s tend not to be that bold. There’d also likely be at least one team willing to give up a late round draft pick for Hajek if the Rangers are ready to move on, so expect him to be protected.
Much like his trademate Brett Howden, Hajek’s inclusion as a centerpiece of the McDonagh/Miller trade was a head scratcher at the time of its conception, and only looks worse in hindsight. Even more so than Howden, Hajek was specifically highlighted by NHL trade insiders as a player the Rangers believed they needed in the deal to feel comfortable with it, which demonstrates another example of an organizational deficiency in identifying what good defense is. Hajek wasn’t a highly regarded prospect that flopped, there wasn’t much there to begin with.
With his entry level contract in the rear view mirror, Hajek’s NHL career thus far has been a tale of insipid mediocrity. He’s not an exciting player to watch, his on-ice results are among the dregs of the league, and there aren’t any positive conclusions to be drawn from his performance since breaking into the show.
Maybe a change of scenery could help Hajek jumpstart his career. Between his lackluster play and the plethora of young defenseman the Blueshirts are moving through their prospect pipeline, Hajek isn’t long for Broadway.
Author Grade: F
Masthead Average: D (3 C-’s, 2 D’s, 3 F’s)
*Data via Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick