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Hajek Joins Rangers After Years of Shining on World Stage for Czechs

by Matt Calamia @MattCalamia / NYRangers.com

The calls and texts certainly streamed in to Libor Hajek on Monday when the news broke that he was part of the blockbuster deal between the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

One person who reached out? Filip Chytil, his fellow countryman who welcomed him to the organization and told him about his new franchise and the city the two hope to soon call home.

"He told me it's really nice there," Hajek told NYRangers.com. "It's really exciting."

The two Czechs met for the first time at this year's World Junior Championship tournament in Buffalo when the pair helped to lead their country to a surprising fourth place finish. 

"I've known him for a short time, but I feel like we're really good friends right now," Hajek said of Chytil. "He told me how the summer is there and how the team is and how the farm team is. He was telling me about the Rangers."

Chytil, whom the Rangers selected 21st overall in last year's draft, praised his fellow countryman and spoke about his excitement at having him join the organization.

"He's a very good guy," Chytil said. "He's a two-way D-man and he's very smart and very strong. He was fun to play with. He's a very good player."

Chytil said the two are already picturing playing alongside each other in New York City at Madison Square Garden.

"He's looking forward to [joining the organization] and being with me there," Chytil said. "It's our goal and we'll do everything to play there and play together for the Rangers."

Tweet from @NYRangers: Get to know new #NYR Prospect Libor Hajek (@libas42)Born: 2/4/98Hometown: Smrcek, CZEDrafted: 37th Overall by TBL in 2016Current Team: @WHLPats 2017-18 #WHL Stats: 52GP; 11G; 24A; 35Pts2018 WJC Stats: 7GP; 1G; 7A; 8Pts�� his @TheWHL highlights! pic.twitter.com/orCX4khQzr

Monday's deal marked the second time this season Hajek was involved in a trade. Earlier in the year he was dealt from Saskatoon to Regina in the Western Hockey League, who was adding to its roster as host of the 2018 Memorial Cup later this spring.

Thus far, the deal hasn't disappointed for fans of the Pats, as the 20-year-old Hajek has three goals and 10 points in 19 games, continuing his career-year he began with the Blades. All told, he has 11 goals and 35 points in 52 games this season, eclipsing his previous best of 26 points in 65 games.

Hajek described himself as a two-way defenseman who doesn't cheat in his own zone to generate offense.

"Good defense. That's the important thing," he said when describing his game. "I like to help out the forwards. I like to go on offense. I'm a good skater and I make a good first pass."

Hajek's name has been on the world stage for years. The blueliner began playing in the Czech Republic's Extraliga at 16 against professionals, including many players who spent time in the NHL and the American Hockey League.

"He was the Czech's best up and coming defenseman for a number of years now," said Nick Bobrov, the Rangers' Director of European scouting. "He's a name that's been very well known on the national teams going back to the year before his draft [in 2016]."

Bobrov said a defenseman playing against men at such a young age as Hajek did is very uncommon, and it left a mark on him and his staff, who felt he had first-round caliber talent; he ended up being taken 37th overall, seven picks outside the first.

"For a young kid to hang with the big boys and be able to play as a defenseman, that's much less common than a forward," Bobrov said of Hajek playing in the pro league. "He would have been a big minute regular in the Extraliga had he not come to the WHL his draft year. That definitely focused our interest on him early."

Hajek has remained on the team's radar in the two years since he was drafted, and his stock increased dramatically after his strong performance at the world juniors where he had a goal and seven assists in seven games for the Czechs, which included an upset of Finland.

"We ended up fourth, so that was great because that hadn't happened in 13 years," Hajek said. "It was great. The coaches I think really liked me and they trusted me to play. That's why I felt so good there. I played well. It was good to play with my friends again."

Chytil credited Hajek's individual success as a big reason why he and the Czechs had such a strong showing at the tournament.

"I think he was one of the best defenseman in the whole world junior championship," he said of Hajek. "He was great on the power play and on the penalty kill. He was one of the biggest parts of our team."

What stands out most for Gordie Clark, the organization's Director of Player Personnel, is what Hajek brings to his teams that doesn't show up in the scoresheet.

Hajek's tenure in Saskatoon was during a down period for the Blades, who missed the postseason in both of Hajek's two full seasons with the club. But Clark said that never factored into Hajek's drive to compete. 

"I said this guy must have incredible character because I've never seen him take a shift off," Clark said of Hajek. "In all those beatings they took, I never saw him take a shift off. I was blown away."

That work ethic comes from Hajek's lifelong goal of playing in the National Hockey League, where anything less than top effort will find a young player on the outside looking in, and it's one he hopes to bring with him to New York.

"In the NHL, you have to play every shift and every game," he said. "That's the biggest thing. I play hard every shift. If you're losing 6-0, you still play and you block shots and you do the best for the team. I always work hard and do my best."

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