Rangers’ Libor Hajek trying to ‘battle through’ not playing
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Libor Hajek, trapped in a second season in the role of seventh defenseman, understandably feels stuck and as if his NHL career has been put on somewhat the back burner.
However, it’s the 24-year-old’s attitude towards his situation that Rangers should be grateful for. But it’s also what will be important for Hajek in the long term after his one-year deal expires at the end of this season.
Hajek was a healthy scratch in Monday night’s 15th straight game against the Blue Jackets. The last time he saw a game was more than a month ago on December 12 against the Devils when he played in his sixth straight competition for the second time this season. Since then, Hajek has slipped back into the same routine as last season: practicing and watching games from the press box.
“It’s tough,” Hajek told the Post after the Rangers extras ran at Nationwide Arena on Monday morning. “I just have to fight my way through, wait for my chance, just work hard. Focus on myself. Be a good teammate. And hopefully, hopefully, one day it spins and I’ll just play.
Earlier in the season, Gerard Gallant and Rangers appeared to have the best of intentions when it came to Hajek, who re-signed with the club in July for $800,000. The Rangers head coach even said he didn’t want to put Hajek in the same situation he found himself in when he played just 22 total games between the NHL and AHL in 2021-22.
And in the first three months of this season, Gallant gave Hajek a chance.
Hajek played in 16 of Rangers’ first 30 games while battling with Zac Jones for last spot on defense. The back and forth likely didn’t help Hajek or Jones, but it was game time Hajek hadn’t seen since running at a career-high in 44 games in 2020-21. After Jones was sent down and Ben Harpur was recalled from Hartford in early December, Hajek slipped back into a deep role.
Harpur looks and plays more of the style Gallant wants his rear end to have. As a result, Hajek has tried to make the best of his circumstances by maintaining his stamina so he’s always ready for the call.
“I try to learn as much as possible,” said Hajek. “Always practice 100 percent, you know, even if I’m mentally tired or something. Just keep going because if I don’t, I’ll only hurt myself. Just watch other players, other Ds, or our Ds. We have the best D Corps in the NHL, I think, so just watch them and how they play.”
In difficult times, Hajek said he thinks of all the players in his native Czech Republic who would do anything to be in his position. That’s the kind of humility Rangers should consider as they make their next move regarding Hajek.
There’s always a chance that Hajek could be snapped up in a deal before the March close. If that doesn’t work, Rangers will have to decide whether or not to make a qualifying offer to Hajek, who will be a limited free agent with arbitration rights at the end of this season. Some sort of trade, either on deadline or off-season, would be the best scenario for both parties.
“It’s a deal,” said Hajek. “I’m a little guy in this business. I can’t really do anything about it. So I’m just focusing on myself and hoping that changes.”