It’s Time for the Rangers to find out about Libor Hajek, McDonagh/Miller trade still haunting organization

It’s Groundhog Day! Here in Staten Island, the good news is Staten Island Chuck didn’t see his shadow. This despite all the snow we got in the metropolitan area.

With the fun out of the way if you believe in the groundhog from one of my all-time favorite movies starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, it’s time to circle back to a trade the Rangers made at the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline. Believe it or not, it’ll mark three years on Feb. 26 since GM Jeff Gorton sent defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller over to the Lightning in exchange for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, plus a 2018 first round pick (Nils Lundkvist) and conditional 2019 second round pick (Karl Henriksson).

Viewed at the time as a commitment to The Letter informing fans that the Rangers organization was fully committed to a rebuild in former coach Alain Vigneault’s last year before David Quinn replaced him, people were excited for what the future held. They were sellers at that deadline and the Lightning were looking for a good second left defenseman who could relieve some pressure from ace Victor Hedman. It made sense for Tampa, who also received Miller in an expanded deal that was surprising.

Nobody anticipated Miller being included in the trade. Surely, the Rangers had to pry one of the Bolts’ best prospects. There was hope they could get either defenseman Cal Foote or forward Taylor Raddysh. Instead, Gorton accepted former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s offer of former ’16 first and second round picks Howden and Hajek in the trade that also netted top nine forward Namestnikov and two draft picks that turned into D prospect Lundkvist and center prospect Henriksson. Both of whom are back home playing in the Swedish Hockey League.

Up to this point nearly three years later, the trade has been a disappointment. While Howden started out well as a rookie under Quinn in ’18-19 before hitting a wall, the 22-year old Calgary native has become a bottom six forward, who usually is on the fourth line and penalty kill. At the present, he’s centering the third line with Filip Chytil out. It’s an opportunity to prove he can be more than a role player who provides energy and wins face-offs. So far, he has one assist entering Thursday’s match versus Washington.

In 145 career NHL games, Howden has totaled 15 goals and 28 assists for 43 points. Not what they were hoping for from the number 27 pick taken in the ’16 NHL Draft. He was good for Canada at the 2018 World Junior Championship where he went 3-4-7 and plus-nine in seven games. That’s probably what intrigued Rangers’ scouts.

This isn’t a question of Howden’s work ethic. He gives it his all every shift and is a trusted shorthanded player. Quinn has used him at both center and wing. He tries different things because Howden is versatile enough to be moved around. It would be nice if he could become more productive.

A good teammate, Howden stepped up and fought Kasperi Kapanen at the end of a lackluster first that sparked the Rangers to a come from behind 3-1 win. Don’t think the players didn’t appreciate it in the locker room. They did.

I definitely am not alone in praising him for that scrap. The first period from the Rangers was lackluster and didn’t inspire much confidence with the Tony DeAngelo dark cloud hanging over their heads. Even if he picked on a player who wasn’t much of a fighter, Howden chose the right moment to wake up his team. They needed it. Not surprisingly, they responded well by getting the next three goals to get a much needed win. Hopefully, it’s one they can build on.

The other player in the deal that’s on the Taxi Squad, Hajek has not established himself yet as an NHL regular. Following a good ’18 WJC where he tallied a goal and seven assists for Czech Republic, the Rangers must’ve liked what they saw. A second round pick that went 37th in the ’16 Draft, the left skating defenseman was advertised as a young player who could be part of the rebuild.

If there was an alarming sign, maybe it was that he didn’t perform well in his first pro season. In 58 games for Hartford, Hajek had five assists and a minus-26 rating. They recalled him. In five NHL games, he scored his first goal and went plus-one with six penalty minutes. A good enough skater with some size, maybe there was potential.

The following season, Hajek played in 28 more games for the Rangers. However, he never really got untracked. He picked up five helpers and went minus-four with 12 PIM before being sent down. As it turned out, fellow rookie Ryan Lindgren beat him out to become a regular on the Blueshirts. He continues to excel while teamed with Adam Fox on the most trusted pair.

Meanwhile, Hajek has struggled since. After going 1-2-3 and a minus-10 with 14 PIM in 23 contests for the Wolf Pack, he started the ’20-21 season back home playing for Brno Kometa. In 10 games, he picked up two assists and was minus-five in Czech. He even got scratched. Maybe it’s a confidence issue.

Whatever the reason, the soon to be 23-year old who turns it on Thursday, hasn’t been able to crack a Rangers defense that now features vets Brendan Smith and Anthony Bitetto with Jack Johnson currently injured.

At some point, the organization needs to find out about Hajek. Is he already a bust? Can he be fixed? With Smith suffering an upper-body injury due to a head on collision with Brandon Tanev, would they consider dressing Hajek to play with Bitetto on the third pair against the Capitals? I’m unsure. If he doesn’t dress for the game with possibly both Johnson and Smith out, then he’ll be assigned to Hartford.

I don’t pretend to know what’s going on during team practices. What I do realize is that time is ticking on Hajek, who has been passed by former ’18 first round pick K’Andre Miller. The 21-year old plays with poise beyond his age and could be the anchor of the defense it hasn’t had since McDonagh left.

Other potential options for Thursday could be Tarmo Reunanen or Matthew Robertson. We’ll wait and see if they have to decide. It all depends on the status of Smith and Johnson.

As far as the remaining prospects in the McDonagh/Miller trade, Lundkvist is a promising skating right defenseman who can provide offense. Not the biggest in stature, he played on Sweden in two World Junior Tournaments. In 2020, he tallied eight points (1-7-8) over seven games. He’s fared well in Sweden registering nine goals with 14 assists for 23 points this year after going 11-20-31 in ’19-20. The Blueshirts need to sign him this year.

Henriksson missed the ’21 WJC due to COVID-19. Sweden definitely could’ve used the two-way center. In seven games at last year’s tournament, he had a goal and two helpers. Henriksson plays for Frolunda in SweHL. Thus far, he’s gotten into 32 games and recorded six assists with 16 PIM and a minus-one rating. He probably needs more time to develop. Especially due to the pandemic which is so unpredictable.

As for Namestnikov, the Rangers moved him over a year ago to Ottawa. They received a fourth round pick in the upcoming 2021 NHL Draft. I doubt you’ll ever see Nick Ebert. Namestnikov moved on from the Senators to another rebuilding team in the Red Wings where ironically Yzerman is in charge. Go figure.

While McDonagh played a key role helping the Lightning win a second Stanley Cup last year, they dealt Miller to the Canucks. Since then, he’s become a top line forward for Vancouver. Miller admitted that he worked harder on his commitment to the game and learned from past mistakes that often saw him benched by Vigneault.

At 27, the former ’11 Rangers’ first round pick is a point-per-game player since joining the Canucks. After setting career bests in goals (27), assists (45) and points (72), he proved himself with 18 points (6-12-18) in the playoffs. A sore spot previously for him with the Rangers and Lightning. He’s off to a good start with 10 points (2-8-10) in nine contests entering Tuesday’s match against Montreal.

Here’s the thing. Wouldn’t a skilled player like Miller look good on the current Rangers roster? With an average cap hit of $5.25 million through 2023, he’s one of the biggest bargains in the NHL. Who would’ve guessed it? I always knew he was capable of more than he showed in the Big Apple. The 56 points he put up in ’16-17 was proof. But another postseason without a goal and the team reaching a decision in ’17-18 lead to his dismissal.

He didn’t even last long in Tampa following a promising start. Maybe he really needed a kick in the ass. It happens sometimes in sports. A change of scenery can wake up an under performing player. I’m happy for Miller that he got his act together.

In regards to that trade, there are still many question marks surrounding it for the Rangers. Unless things change, the deal could be viewed as one of the worst in club history. Hopefully, one of the players they got back can change the perception.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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