While serving in a depth role with the Rangers last season, his fifth with the organization, Libor Hajek played the fewest games in his career.
The 24-year-old defenseman appeared in just 17 games with the Rangers and five with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, in 2021-22. That was a result of the Rangers opting to keep Hajek around for a majority of the season as the seventh defenseman, which often left him as a healthy scratch due to the team’s luck with injuries.
“You know, sometimes I [woke] up mad,” Hajek told The Post on Friday. “But I can’t show that.
“It was experience. So, good and bad. Luckily for me, we have a really good group of guys, coaches. The guys helped me a lot. They were talking to me everyday, we had a good time. I’m really happy to be back with the Rangers. It’s always an honor to play for the Rangers. So I’ll do my best.”
Now, with the sixth spot up for grabs after Patrik Nemeth was dealt to the Coyotes this offseason, Hajek is in the mix along with Zac Jones and Matthew Robertson. The left-handed Czech spent the first two on-ice days of training camp skating next to Braden Schneider, who is essentially a lock for the top six.
While Jones is the more dynamic option and Robertson is the more physical option, Hajek would be the familiar route for head coach Gerard Gallant, who acknowledged that the Rangers’ luck with injuries played a major role in Hajek’s limited ice time.
Still, Hajek re-signed with the Rangers this offseason, presumably knowing there was a spot to be won. The one-year, $800,000 deal would be beneficial for the Rangers’ cap situation, but the organization has the same type of option with Jones ($925,000 cap hit) and Robertson ($797,500 cap hit)
“He looks more confident this year,” Gallant said of Hajek, who has three goals and eight assists in 94 NHL games. “Honestly, if you look at stuff that you didn’t like, you’d probably say he looked like he lacked a little bit of confidence at times. I don’t see that this camp. He’s come in here from Day 1, he looks strong, he looks good. He tested really well. So everything is good. Everything is leading toward this guy being a good player on our hockey team.”
Even though there are worse situations to be in than collecting an NHL salary and hanging around an NHL club, it would be unfair for the Rangers to expect Hajek to repeat his usage from last season. The problem is, if Hajek isn’t in the top six defensemen, the Rangers’ only other options would be to trade him or try to pass him through waivers to Hartford — which more than likely would end with another team claiming him.
“Last year, sometimes sit down with the coaches, they showed me what I need to do better in a game when I play,” said Hajek, who mentioned he skated with the Czech national team in the offseason. “So I tried to focus on that during the summer, just simple things, skill, in the circles, same things.”
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