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Season in Review: Libor Hajek

by Matt Calamia @MattCalamia / NYRangers.com

It was a season filled with unique experiences for defenseman Libor Hajek.

He shined for his native Czech Republic at the 2018 World Junior Championship tournament in Buffalo, and was immediately dealt by the Saskatoon Blades to the powerhouse Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League.

Just under two months later, he was involved in another move, this time going to the New York Rangers from Tampa Bay at the NHL trade deadline.

Hajek's unorthodox season continued when he and the Pats endured a near two-month break between their first-round WHL playoff exit and the Memorial Cup, which they hosted in Regina at the end of May.

While Hajek and the Pats ultimately fell in the final to Quebec's Acadie-Bathurst, the experience was nonetheless a positive one for the young blueliner.

"It was a great experience," Hajek told NYRangers.com. "We did really good there. I'm happy I could be there. I'm happy with the way I played."

Regina General Manager and Head Coach John Paddock said the best way to describe Hajek was "low maintenance," and that he was a defenseman he and his staff targeted in a trade due to his play in all areas of the ice.

"He's just a real good, solid, all-around player who does a lot of things well," Paddock said of Hajek. "That's how he played for us."

Hajek said the area he progressed in the most this season was offensively. He posted career-highs with 12 goals - up from four a year ago - and 27 assists for 39 points in 58 games split between Saskatoon and Regina.

"I had more goals this season. It was great," Hajek said. "More points actually, too. I always passed. This year, I shot more. After every practice, I just kept shooting."

That work ethic left a mark on Paddock.

"He's always at the rink wanting to improve himself," Paddock said of Hajek. "Whether it's doing extra work in the weight room or talking to coaches after practice. He's a sponge. He wants to be a really good player."

 What impresses Paddock the most about Hajek's game is his speed and skill with the puck, which allows him to quickly turn defense into offense.

"He can skate the puck out of trouble when those times are needed," he said. "When you have players that have the ability to lose a checker and carry it to the top of the circle and make a play, that's why they're top players. He has really good skating ability and skill and he's strong."

This offseason is of course a big one for Hajek, who hopes to make the jump to professional hockey. Paddock is confident Hajek has all the physical tools to do just that, but he had some unique advice for Hajek at Regina's exit meetings.

"He has to believe how good he is," Paddock said. "He's a shy guy. A quiet guy. That's not abnormal when you come from another country. But I told him to have a little bit of swagger. Believe how good you are."

With the year finished in Regina, Hajek is enjoying some down time back home in the Czech Republic before heading to New York later this month for the team's development camp, the first time he'll hit the ice for the Blueshirts.

"I'm kind of nervous," Hajek said with a laugh. "It's a new place. I've never been there. It's New York, right? It'll be really nice. I can't wait. I'm really excited to get there."

It's a new place, but luckily for Hajek, there will be some familiar faces. Hajek played alongside forward Filip Chytil at the world juniors, and was teammates with Brett Howden, who came with him to New York as part of the deal with the Lightning, when the two spent time with Syracuse of the American Hockey League.

Hajek said he wants to use the week to show everyone in the Rangers organization what type of player he is, and what type of person he is.

"I want to show I'm a good guy off the ice and I'm a hard worker on the ice," he said. "They know how I play. I just want to show them every day that I'm better and better. I want to show them they made a good trade."

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