The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Raw Charge writing staff. Four writers, plus a special guest, ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1st, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.
#24 Libor Hájek
In December of 2016, 19-year-old Czech defenseman Libor Hájek was overjoyed to find out (from his mom) that his name was on the Team Czech camp roster for the IIHF world junior championships. He was tremendously excited to attend camp, but with nine other young Czech defensemen on the roster, was not selected to play in the tournament. He tweeted his disappointment, but then got back to work.
Drafted in the second round in 2016 (for the pick that sent Anthony DeAngelo to the Coyotes), Hájek played the 2016-17 season with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades. The team did not make the playoffs, likely because they were 20th in the WHL in scoring out of 22 teams. The Blades had bad luck, sporting a shooting percentage of 98.61, but were also unable to be defensively sound enough to keep their goals against low, and had a goal differential of -58. How much of this was Hájek’s fault?
Despite playing on a reasonably bad team, 6'2, 196 lb Hájek, who carried the A, did credibly last season. He earned 4 goals and 22 assists in 65 games played for the Blades -- but even more than that, tried to keep his team tough to play against. His 81 PIM was second only to 20-year-old undrafted teammate Evan Fiala.
After the Blades’ season ended, Hájek was signed to a three-year two-way ELC. The Lightning development personnel saw enough in him to give him a chance with the Syracuse Crunch — and in eight games played, he scored 1 goal and clocked 4 minutes of PIM. He was not eligible to play in the Crunch playoffs, but remained with the team as a black ace to observe the playoff run.
“Libor was good. I like the way he skated,” Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx said. “Tough night for him. It’s tough to start your career in a game like this. Overall, I thought he did some good things.”
Hájek, who finished his junior season with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL last month, was used as the seventh defenseman, but earned some special teams time late in the game.
“It’s a big jump. It’s way faster, quicker, smarter,” the Smrcek, Czech Republic native said. “But the coaches help a lot. They showed me before the game tactics, so I know what to do. It’s just hockey. Everywhere is the same, it’s just faster and quicker, and the guys helped me out a lot.”
Moves really well for a big guy, though he was a bit stiff in the power skating drills compared to the other d-men. But he does have one of the better forward-to-backward skating transitions of the group. Possibly one of the best backwards skaters at camp. Good puck handling skills and had more fluid movement the rest of the camp than the first day at power skating/puck drills. Good strong shot. Had a very solid 3v3 tournament.
Welcome to your debut in the Top 25 Under 25, Hájek!