To say there’s been a bit of speculation about Taylor Hall this season would be a bit of an understatement. Every reaction on the ice, every piece of body language and any interview he gives is picked apart. Everyone is trying to read the tea leaves to find out if there’s any chance he wants to stay in New Jersey rather than leaving for somewhere else as a free agent next summer.
Hall has been relatively cagey about his future, choosing his words carefully while making sure it’s known that he’s taking his time with his first chance at unrestricted free agency. Combine that with his agent being the notorious Darren Ferris, and we can probably expect that kind of rampant speculation all season long and into the summer.
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The question few seem to be asking right now is: “What’s the best-case scenario for the Devils?” They’re in a tricky position here as a team in mid-rebuild that also has some players who are in their competitive windows and likely want to win as soon as possible, Hall being one of them. So can Hall provide value long-term despite his pretty rough injury history, or would it make more sense for the Devils to move him for future assets?
The 2018 Hart Trophy winner has been solid on the surface this season. He’s on a point per game pace despite a career low 4.8 shooting percentage that is not going to last very much longer. But let’s dig deeper into his play and see how he’s doing, compared to what we’re used to seeing from him.
Looking at Hall’s individual contributions to the Devils’ offence, we need to keep in mind that this offence has been increasing each year. But even accounting for that Hall was still fully in Hart Trophy form in his injury-shortened 2018-19 season despite the Devils struggling around him.
Hall has been one of the biggest offensive generators in the NHL over the past few seasons, creating tons of opportunities for his teammates thanks to his unique combination of skills where he can beat you with a shot, a pass, a deke, or just with breakneck speed and physicality.
However, so far this season you’ll notice his shots across the board have significantly fallen off. His shot rate from the inner slot has dropped by over a third from his previous two-year average, and the same goes for his scoring chances on net. His overall scoring chance production is down 20 per cent, rush chances are down more than 10 per cent, and his perimeter shots are nearly halved.
Usually when we see a drop in perimeter shots it isn’t a big deal, but because Hall’s shot rate has fallen across the board, this is a concern. Hall’s passes to the slot are actually up this season — he ranks 30th in the NHL there and second on the Devils behind Wayne Simmonds. But everywhere else has fallen off.
The end result is that Hall’s ability to create scoring chances for his teammates has dropped by nearly 30 per cent compared to last season’s career high numbers.
So, it’s fair to say it’s been a slow start for one of the league’s best offensive performers, but Hall has historically brought a lot more than the offence he creates individually. He has been one of the best transition driving wingers in the NHL over the course of his career, and his impact on the flow of play is massive. So let’s look at how the Devils have fared with him on the ice over the past three seasons as well.
Here’s where things go from a little concerning to a lot more concerning. Over the past few seasons, Hall has had an absolutely stellar impact on the control of the flow of play. Not only has he driven results, but the areas he’s exerted the most influence happen to be the most important ones — passes to the slot and inner slot shots.
The drop off here is gigantic. He’s gone from one of the league’s best play drivers to below average, and it makes you wonder if there are some lingering problems left over from his injury last season. If that’s the case, it couldn’t come at a worse time for Hall, who is looking to cash in on a mega free agent deal that his past work says he more than deserves.
The Devils are also in a bit of a tough spot, because on the face of it you’d want to go long-term with a player as dynamic as Hall, but are you fully confident that he won’t hit an early decline because of the myriad of injuries he’s suffered in his career? Or that this is the sudden start of it?
The thing is, as jarring as these numbers look, we are still talking about just one month into a season where Hall is coming back from an injury that kept him out of hockey games since the end of last December. In my opinion he has earned the leeway to have time to shake off the rust and get his game back before we make sweeping judgements about where he’s trending.
Another consideration is that Hall has repeatedly shown interest and savvy in these sorts of statistics, so you can bet a stack of cash that he’s well aware of how things have been going for him this season. He’s likely looking to figure out what’s holding him back, which might help him address things and turn it around quicker.
If the Devils wait it out hoping this turns out to be an early-season slump, but find out that perhaps Hall isn’t the same player and his market value implodes, it could be a disaster for them. But I don’t see any other reasonable approach to take for a team that is just starting to dig itself out of a brutal stretch to start the year.
Patience can be rewarded. Although I don’t think the comparison holds at the team level, if we remember the St. Louis Blues last season, we know that sometimes not making a panic move is the best move of all.