When 20-year-old defenseman Libor Hajek speaks, a word he uses often is "experience".
Hajek is still a very young player, experience-wise, but he has already tasted of multiple different important experiences in his hockey career, and is gaining valuable experience on the Hartford Wolf Pack blue line, as a prime prospect for the Rangers.
Hajek has been a regular for the Wolf Pack since day one, logging major minutes as part of a very young Hartford defense corps. After three years of Western Hockey League action, the Smrcek, Czech Republic native has found it to be a big jump to full-time duty in the AHL, but has been excited for the opportunity to learn under pressure.
"It's hard, coming here from Junior, being a pro," Hajek said recently. "But I learn, each and every day, guys helping me lots, coaches helping me. It's good."
Wolf Pack head coach Keith McCambridge, himself a former WHL defenseman, has been encouraged by Hajek's steady development.
"He's made good strides, his game has grown," McCambridge commented. "There's been a learning curve, obviously, that takes place with a first-year player, and even more so with a defenseman, with the pressure situations that take place being that last line of defense, but we like where he's at right now. He's a real powerful skater, he's been able to adjust and be quicker with getting back for pucks and being able to, before he gets the puck, have a strong awareness of where that first pass is going to be, and where the pressure is coming from, from the opposition. We like the strides and traction of where his game is going right now."
When asked what he feels are the strengths of his game, the 6-2, 204-pound Hajek identified, "Good skating, first pass, and good in the defensive zone," which sounds like the prototype of what every NHL team seeks in a defenseman. McCambridge agrees, seeing potential in Hajek to grow into a truly well-rounded player.
"He's a two-way defenseman, but you want to make sure that the groundwork of his game is being solid and reliable in his own zone, using that strength and the gift that he has, his skating ability, to get pucks back," McCambridge elaborated. "And then, once he has the puck, we can look at that second part, that second element of his game, and that's the ability to get up the ice, to add some offense from the blue line. But if you're not strong in your own zone, if you don't have the puck, then none of that matters. But he's been able to get possession back in our own end, and be aware of how you need to play."
In regards to what Hajek is striving to improve on, McCambridge pointed out that, as is the case with so many young players at the AHL level, "It's consistency. It's, game in, game out, making sure that his game is not having a dropoff. We need him to make sure that every single night, as a coaching staff, we know what we're going to get out of him. And from that consistency, now he has the opportunity to continue to grow and get himself to the next level.
"I really like the mental side of him, being able to turn the page when a mistake does happen, whether it's part of where he is on the ice, or just a matter of being one of the five for a goal-against that are on the ice at that time. We feel like he's been able to have that belief in himself, and learn through video, learn through chalk-talk on where you need to be on the ice. And when you're in those areas, you're able to get the puck back and to play on the offensive side of it. We like the growth, he's a young kid, he comes to the rink to get better every day, and there's a lot of real positives to him right now."
For much of the season, Hajek has been paired with Brandon Crawley, a second-year pro who is barely a year older than Hajek. Despite their relative lack of seasoning, the two youngsters have formed a solid duo.
"We are always talking, about what we can do better and things like that," Hajek said of himself and his New Jersey-born partner. "He's a really good player, helping me. When I join the rush, he's there, always, for me, so it's really good to play with him."
"We feel they balance each other off relatively well," McCambridge said, "where they're vocal, they're talking going back for pucks, and they're good partners. If one is up a little bit in 50-50 situation, the other one is in a position to back him up if a breakdown happens. We feel that there's some good chemistry with those two growing."
Crawley echoed that, saying of Hajek, "I think we play off each other. He's a physical guy as well, he likes to muck it up. I think we've been doing well in all three zones, and we want to keep it up. He's an easy partner to play with. It's been fun playing with him, and I look forward to keeping on playing with him."
Part of the experience that has made Hajek mature beyond his years came this past February 26, with the trade deadline deal that sent him to the Rangers from the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had drafted Hajek with the 37th overall pick in 2016. Hajek didn't see the trade coming, but has found it to be a real positive.
"I was surprised," he said. "I was kind of shocked, but now I'm really happy that happened. The Rangers are a really good organization, so it's great to be here."
One thing that made the transition to the Rangers all that much smoother for Hajek was the presence of his countryman Filip Chytil in the Ranger organization. The two were not well acquainted before playing together in last year's World Junior Championship for their native Czech Republic, but quickly became good buddies during a strong run in that tournament by the Czech squad.
"At the World Junior we were really good friends," Hajek said. "And we spent this whole summer together, so we are really good friends now, and I'm glad he's here.
"The first thing I did (after the trade) was call him and ask him, 'How is it there?', and he told me everything. That made it kind of less stressful, so that helped."
Clearly Hajek has a lot to draw from as he moves himself forward in the pro ranks, and he puts all of that hard-earned and wide-ranging experience into every AHL shift. The progress has been steady towards the young blueliner's next hoped-for addition to his career resume, a leap into a spot in the Ranger lineup and a taste of what the NHL experience is like.