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Hajek believes it's his time with Rangers

Defenseman prospect confident he'll start season in New York out of first NHL training camp

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Libor Hajek was coveted by the New York Rangers for many reasons, including his size (6-foot-2, 202 pounds), skating, two-way play, presence on the ice and character.

They've learned since acquiring the 20-year-old defenseman in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 26 that he's oozing with confidence too. 

"I believe I will do everything to make the team, and I believe I will make it this year," Hajek said during the Rangers' prospect development camp earlier this summer. "That's my goal and I will do everything for it."

The Rangers got Hajek as part of the trade that sent former captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller to the Lightning. New York also acquired forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Brett Howden, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and a conditional first-round pick in 2019.

Hajek, the No. 37 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft who played the past three seasons in the Western Hockey League, was arguably the most important piece of the trade from the Rangers' perspective. He projects as a top-two or, at worst, a top-four NHL defenseman.

"I've seen him play out west several times and he's an excellent talent," said Adam Graves, the former Rangers forward and current adviser to the hockey and business operations departments. "He was the [Czech Republic's] best defenseman and one of the best defensemen in the World Juniors.

"He excels in all aspects of the game."

Hajek had 39 points (12 goals, 27 assists) in 58 games split between Saskatoon and Regina in the WHL last season. He had 91 points (19 goals, 72 assists) in 192 WHL games in his three seasons.

Hajek's eight points (one goal, seven assists) in seven games tied him with Cale Makar of Canada, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, for the most points among defensemen at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. The Czech Republic lost to the United States 9-3 in the bronze medal game.

"We love his character, the way he plays," Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said. "He plays hard. Going to the front of the net is something he makes you pay a price for. Jumping into the play is something he can do. He's a very well-rounded player. He's got high character."

And Hajek has at the very least a semi-realistic goal of making the Rangers out of his first NHL training camp this season. He will have plenty of competition, but he's in the mix and there are spots up for grabs with Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei and Marc Staal as arguably the only three locks on defense.

Neal Pionk has a step on some others because he performed well in his 28 games last season with 14 points (one goal, 13 assists). Fredrik Claesson, who played 113 games in three seasons with the Ottawa Senators, was the only unrestricted free agent the Rangers signed.

There's also Brendan Smith, who still has three years left on his contract after finishing last season in the American Hockey League, John Gilmour, Tony DeAngelo, Rob O'Gara, Steven Kampfer, and rookies Ryan Lindgren, Sean Day and, of course, Hajek.

"That would be something this organization could really use, somebody who could make our team like that, especially on defense right now," Gorton said of Hajek.

"Listen, if he comes into camp and he's close and he's ready and he's pushing, we'll just keep giving him rope and see how far he can take it."

Hajek has no doubt he can take it all the way.

"I feel strong, I feel I'm ready," he said. "I don't want to be selfish or something like that, but I believe in myself and I want to make it this year."

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