GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Although they haven’t been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the Rangers know it is time to start looking toward the future. So on Thursday, with 19 games remaining this season, they promoted defenseman Libor Hajek from Hartford (AHL). He is expected to be in the lineup Friday night when the Rangers host the Montreal Canadiens at the Garden.
“He’s a guy that’s continued to get better down in Hartford,’’ coach David Quinn said Thursday. “They’ve done a great job with him. He’s earned this opportunity. The guy can skate. I really liked him in training camp. [He] made good decisions with the puck, makes a good outlet pass and does a good job taking away time and space. So that’s why he’s here.’’
Hajek, 21, was part of the return from the blockbuster trade with Tampa Bay at last year’s trade deadline, coming along with Brett Howden, Vlad Namestnikov and two draft picks — the Lightning’s first-rounder last year and either their second-rounder or first-rounder this year — in exchange for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.
As a first-year pro this season at Hartford, Hajek was one of only two players to have played all 58 games for the Wolf Pack. He had no goals and five assists, was a team-worst minus-26 and had 36 penalty minutes. But Quinn cautioned not to put too much stock in Hajek’s statistics.
“For a defenseman, numbers can sometimes be deceiving, especially in the American Hockey League,’’ Quinn said. “There’s a lot that goes into the evaluation of a player, and it’s the progress [that is most important]. You’re looking at the full season of statistics and we’re looking at the progress and where he is over the last month. And we feel his play has warranted this opportunity.’’
Hajek, originally a second-round pick by the Lightning in 2016, said his first pro experience has “not been the greatest season’’ but said he’s grown the most on the defensive end.
He said that after being included in last year’s trade, he may have put too much pressure on himself to play well, which worked against him.
“I was maybe trying too much to prove they made a good decision,’’ said Hajek, who was partnered with Neal Pionk during practice. “Sometimes there were times I didn’t play good — that’s why. I was trying to do too much. So I need to stay in my game.’’
“His bread and butter’s going to be his ability to defend and make an outlet pass and join the rush,’’ Quinn said. “And to me, those are the things he has to focus on, especially right now.”
Notes & quotes: Henrik Lundqvist will start in goal against the Canadiens. Lundqvist is six wins shy of tying Curtis Joseph (454) for fifth place on the all-time wins list . . . Mika Zibanejad, Jesper Fast and Namestnikov got the day off for maintenance . . . Howden, who has missed 14 games with a knee injury, was cleared to return but likely won’t play Friday and is targeting a return Sunday afternoon against Washington . . . Filip Chytil, who was scratched Wednesday, did extra skating after practice and likely won’t be back in the lineup Friday.