Libor Hajek, Joey Keane
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Rangers have a problem with their defense. Giving more playing time to their youngsters could be the solution.

The New York Rangers have three major conundrums this season: They’re still rebuilding, they’re very young, and the defense is struggling. Much of the credit for the latter must go to Rangers defensive coach Lindy Ruff.

One of their young defensemen, Libor Hajek, has been out with a knee injury since Dec. 5, although he’s been skating in non-contact red since Dec. 27.

According to Colin Stephenson of Newsday, when asked about his situation on Dec. 31, head coach David Quinn said he didn’t know when Hajek would return. He also stated that Hajek would probably need to skate in some games before re-joining the Rangers. That likely means he’ll spend some time in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Even so, Hajek was given a three-to-four-week recovery timetable. He should return to the Rangers relatively soon. When that happens, the Rangers need to call up either Joey Keane or Yegor Rykov.

As mentioned, the Rangers are a rebuilding team with low expectations. They also have a surplus of promising defensive talent. They need to start figuring out what they have with these youngsters.

Hajek was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft. He was a promising defensive prospect who the Rangers acquired as part of the trade for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller trade.

Hajek looked somewhat impressive upon being called up last year, but he’s regressed. Again, he is still very young, and all defensemen seem to play poorly under Ruff. That’s why Hajek needs to be given more chances to prove himself. The Rangers are rebuilding and need to understand what their defensive situation is going to look like in the future.

Keane was selected by the Rangers in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft and is now 20-years-old. He’s having an incredible season in Hartford, tallying 21 points (six goals and 15 assists) in 33 games and he was just selected to the 2020 AHL All-Star Game. His defense has also improved greatly.

Keane’s name was never really mentioned in conversations about the defense of the future. That said, he’s really making a case for himself this year. The Rangers need to determine where Keane fits in their plans, if at all, and the only way to do that is by calling him up to the big leagues.

Rykov was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. He was dealt to the Rangers in 2018 as part of a deal for Michael Grabner. Rykov is also playing in Hartford and this is just his first season playing hockey in North America and he’s missed a good chunk of the year after suffering an ankle injury.

Despite that, he has seven points in 12 AHL games. The defenseman has been very impressive since being drafted, especially as of late. He’s great at handling the puck and has a high defensive IQ.

At this point in time, fans have high expectations for the 22-year-old. It would be surprising if he’s not part of the Rangers’ defensive corps in the near future.

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The proposed Hajek and Keane/Rykov rotation will have to come at a cost—a defenseman will be relegated to the bench. That defenseman should be Marc Staal.

Staal’s had a nice run in his long tenure with the Rangers, but time is almost up for him. At 32, he’s simply no longer a capable NHL defenseman. He was never productive offensively, but now he’s a liability on both ends.

Staal most likely won’t be on the team come next year. Even though he’s a veteran with a great deal of experience, there is absolutely no reason why he should be playing 20 minutes a night.

Having Hajek and one of the other two aforementioned youngsters play in his stead makes the most sense. This team could be developing youngsters instead of wasting time on a player who is going to be gone sooner rather than later.

Leen has written about the MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, and international soccer. She is currently the primary NHL writer for ESNY. Leen's work has been featured on Bleacher Report and she was formerly a contributor for FanSided's New York Mets blog, Rising Apple. She is a co-host of the Yankees-Mets Express podcast.