Here’s a question for you: What if Libor Hajek ends up as the sixth defenseman on opening night, beating out both Zac Jones and Matthew Robertson. What if the guy who had poorer advanced stats than Patrik Nemeth and Jack Johnson, ends up being the one they go to first?
I mean it kind of happened last year right? They dressed Jarred Tinordi and Patrik Nemeth on opening night against the Capitals, despite both having significant mobility issues in their own end. And the year before they started Jack Johnson despite him being one of the worst advanced stats players in the advanced stat era.
While Johnson went on to win score a breakway goal and win a Cup wih the Avalanche – albeit as a depth player, Nemeth was traded and Tinordi ultimately shipped to Hartford, it shows that these things do indeed happen.
So what if it happens that the team decides that Hajek is the best choice to start with, and how might that happen?
Even a single injury to a starting defenseman at camp or in the preseason, would leave the door wide open for Hajek to start opening night. With just four other defenseman on the roster with even limited NHL experience, the Rangers would likely turn to Hajek as an early option ahead of the likes of Tinordi or Andy Welinski – who last played in the NHL two years ago.
The potential absense of Nils Lundkvist from camp makes this scenario even more likely, ruling out an option for the team to consider to cover at least short term, if not long term injuries.
Training camp and the preseason are a short affair, lending the Rangers coaching staff and front office only around two weeks to determine who the best fits might be. Should Jones and Robertson fail to impress, then Hajek may become the default option…especially if there are few reasonable options on the waiver wire. Hajek, as flawed as he may be, might prove to be the default option over an unknown quantity in Robertson, and a guy like Jones who still has a lot to prove, particularly defensively.
While Robertson has to do a lot in camp to prove he’s ready, especially given that he has yet to dress for a single game, the chances of Jones failing as well seem unlikely at this point. While Jones still has to improve his game, he is at least approaching camp this year with the right mindset and a little extra strength/bulk to give himself a better chance.
Another thing to consider for the Rangers, is where they want to be at the trade deadline. Every dollar the Rangers save, goes towards potential acquisitions for a playoff run. With a dollar saved at the beginning of the season worth about five by the time the deadline rolls around. This is true because roughly 80% of the season and associated salary has already been accounted for by the time the trade deadline rolls around, and as such only 20% of a player’s contract value counts toward the remainder of the season.
For example, the Rangers currently have around $900K of projected Cap Space for this season, if they don’t add any additional, then that would amount a contract/contracts worth around $4.5M contract value being able to be added at the deadline.
In this scenario, playing Hajek over Jones and not carrying a seventh defenseman, would have the potential to save around $833K additional dollars, the equivalent to as much as an additional $4.2M.
Of course the amount is likely to be lower, because injuries will occur during the season, and the Rangers will have to call up players to replace them which will eat into the number, but the effect of saving dollars early in the season gives Drury more flexibility later in the year.
So could Hajek actually be in the starting line-up for opening night? I for one wouldn’t rule it out, even if I don’t expect it to come to pass.