EDMONTON, Alberta — On the afternoon of Feb. 26, Libor Hajek sat down after practice with his Western Hockey League Regina Pats club and checked his phone. That was when he found out that he’d been traded for the second time this season, this time to the Rangers.
Hajek, 20, had been previously traded within the WHL, going from the last-place Saskatoon Blades to the Pats. That trade presented him with an opportunity to make the WHL playoffs for the first time. The second trade presented him with another opportunity: The chance to realistically compete for an NHL roster spot next season.
Hajek, a native of Smrcek, Czech Republic who had a goal and seven assists in seven games for the Czech team in the World Junior Championships, was part of the package going from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Rangers at the NHL’s trade deadline in exchange for Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller.
The Lightning sent center Vladislav Namestnikov, Hajek, 19-year-old WHL forward Brett Howden, a first-round pick in the June draft, and a conditional first-round pick in the 2019 draft.
With his Pats team scheduled to play in Calgary Saturday against the Calgary Hitmen, and with the Rangers in town Friday to play the Calgary Flames, Pats GM/coach John Paddock offered to drive Hajek into Calgary a night early so he could see his new team in action.
“He asked me if I want to go and meet the coaches,’’ Hajek said of Paddock, a one-time Rangers scout. “So I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ It’s really nice of him.’’
Hajek, a second-round pick of the Lightning in 2016, has three goals and seven assists in 19 games for Regina and 11 goals and 24 assists in 52 games overall this season. He described himself as a two-way defenseman and said the Rangers’ rebuilding movement is a golden opportunity for him to make the NHL club next season.
“When I look at the lineup, they have young guys, and they say they want to make a young team for next year, so it’s very good,’’ he said.
Asked what part of his game needs work, the 6-2, 210-pound Hajek, who led all defensemen in assists at the World Juniors and was tied for tops among defensemen in points, said he probably needs to improve his shot, become a little more selfish, and shoot more. Paddock said he expects Hajek’s offensive game will grow, and he predicted he will have a long NHL career.
“He’s going to be a top four (defenseman) for a long time,’’ Paddock said. “He’s big, (he) skates, (he’s) got skill. There’s nothing to stop him from being an NHL defenseman for quite a while.’’
Furthermore, Paddock said, he believes Hajek will be a legitimate contender to earn a roster spot with the Rangers next season.
“I think he’s real close,’’ Paddock said.