TAMPA, Fla. — This seems to be a case of Same Time Next Year for Libor Hajek, who seems to have settled into a role as the club’s seventh defenseman, having been a healthy scratch for the seventh straight time in Thursday’s match against the Lightning.
The 24-year-old has been leapfrogged on the depth chart by Ben Harpur, who was recalled from the AHL Wolf Pack on Dec. 3 while exchanging places with Zac Jones. After spending his first five NHL matches in street clothes, the 27-year-old has grabbed hold of the spot on the third pair alongside righty Braden Schneider.
“I love the size, and I’m not comparing him to anyone else but what Harpur brings is a big body, he’s a physical guy when he has to be and I think the other players and other teams know that,” head coach Gerard Gallant said before the Blueshirts’ 2-1 shootout defeat to the Lightning Thursday night. “He’s moving the puck well and just doing a steady job.
“I’m not trying to say that Libor is not what he is, but Libor was a different player. I wanted Libor to take that spot, I wanted Jonesy to take that spot, and they came in and played some good games and then fell off again.“So that’s what I’m trying to say. I wish those guys would have played better consistently. When they had it, Harpur came in and played a game and a little like Schneider last year, it’s only a small amount and five or six games but he’s done a job and we’re happy.”
Sammy Blais was reinstated to the lineup after two healthy scratches that followed his undisciplined penalty late in the second period of the Dec. 20 match in Pittsburgh that got him unceremoniously benched the remainder of that 3-2 defeat.
The winger, still trying to find a foothold after missing nearly all of last season because of his Nov. 15 knee injury and subsequent surgery, said that the coaching staff didn’t necessarily explain to him why he was out of the lineup, but that, “I kind of knew after that penalty.
“I deserved to be scratched, I think. I’m just happy to be back in the lineup now.”
Blais has five points (0-5) in 31 games this season, nine points (0-9) in 45 games wearing the Blueshirt. But he is not in there to dangle or dance. He is in the lineup to bring a degree of physicality to a team that does not have very many who play with a mean-edged mentality.
“Physicality, energy,” Blais said. “Playing on the fourth line, that’s my job.”
The 26-year-old pending unrestricted free agent, who lined up in this one on a unit with Jonny Brodzinski in the middle and Jimmy Vesey on the right, delivered four hits in 10:02 that included a crunching second-period blow on Vladislav Namestnikov in front of the Tampa Bay bench. The winger has been credited with a team-leading 104 hits among forwards.
“I mean, I didn’t play for a year so there are times I wish I was better but I’m just trying to stay positive,” Blais said. “My knee is 100 percent so it’s just confidence, I think, in getting back to where I was before.”
Namestnikov also took a walloping hit in the first period from Jacob Trouba that prompted Zach Bogosian to chase the captain about 100 feet before turning away. … Blueshirts finished the calendar year 61-28-8, including their 10-10 mark in the playoffs. The team kicks off 2023 on Sunday in Sunrise, Fla., against the Panthers.