With the Devils about to end their random week-long hiatus tonight and get back on the ice against the Senators, they will look to shake off the cobwebs and continue to play the way that has led them to start the season a surprising 6-2-0. How has that 6-2-0 start happened? Well, it’s a combination of things, some of which John talked about in his Monday post, but today I’m going to focus on one player in particular: a guy you might remember by the name of Taylor Hall.
Remarkably, just a year removed from arriving in one of the more shocking trades in recent memory, Hall has kind of flown under the radar to an extent this season. With the selection of Nico Hischier first overall in this summer’s NHL Draft and the fanfare that surrounded it, plus other moves like the trade for Marcus Johansson and the signing of Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher, Hall was understandably not the focus this offseason in New Jersey. And when camp opened in September, the focus and excitement shifted to the wave of youth potentially arriving in New Jersey this season. That excitement then extended into October when two surprising Devils rookies, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher, came roaring out of the gate to start the season.
Despite the spotlight residing in different places for the past six months or so though, the fact remains that the best player on this team right now – and likely for the immediate future until perhaps Hischier is ready to challenge him – is Taylor Hall. Hall is a difference-maker and the type of player who can elevate linemates and dominate play. Despite the (completely appropriate) enthusiasm related to Will Butcher’s big start, Hall is now tied for with him the team-lead in points with 9 in 8 games. It feels weird to say that a guy who leads the team in points is flying under the radar, but that seems to be the reality in New Jersey for the time being.
Perhaps most impressive about Hall amassing those 9 points is that he’s done it while dealing with some terrible shooting luck. At just 4% shooting for the season, Hall has struggled to find twine, despite far-outpacing any of his teammates in shot output so far; he has 25 shots, while the next closest player (Severson) has 18 and the next closest forwards (Palmieri and Henrique) have 17. The goals are likely to come, though, and while Hall’s career shooting of 10.2% doesn’t exactly make him a sniper, it’s enough for him to put up strong goal totals, given the way he gets pucks to the net. Combine that with the way he has put up assists thus far (8 total, with 7 of them being primary), and it’s hard to see the way he has started this season as anything but great.
Hall’s play at even-strength continues to be the area of his game where he really stands out. His ability to take over games from the wing at evens is crucial for a team that is still figuring things out in that state of play. To wit, Hall currently leads the team in average TOI, shots, assists, primary assists, points, shot attempts, individual scoring chances, and individual high-danger chances at even-strength (all per Natural Stat Trick), and he’s done all that while committing no penalties and drawing two. He also has strong possession stats with him +2.65 in score/venue adjusted 5v5 relative CF% while drawing tough matchups on the top line. Without Hall, this team would likely still be searching for answers on offense at this point.
Hall continues to be the real deal for New Jersey and right now he looks like everything fans hoped he would be when he arrived from Edmonton. The game where he really stood out most to me though, was the comeback win over Ottawa last Thursday. The main story out of that game was Hischier’s first two NHL goals but the truly dominant Devil on the ice was Hall (he even had a hand in both Hischier goals). Hall put up 4 assists in that game, but even beyond the score sheet, he was a wrecking ball. Every time he touched the puck, he seemed to be wreaking havoc on the Senators and he was drawing immense amounts of attention by the end of the game. Take this goal by Kyle Palmieri to start the third period comeback:
Palmieri finished if off nicely, but that was a chance generated almost entirely by Hall. He collects a loose puck off an errant pass and immediately swoops back up through the neutral zone with speed. He is able to draw basically the entire Senators roster to him on the ice before absorbing a big hit at the line and getting just enough on the puck (plus a little luck) to spring Palmieri. With Hall occupying four (4!) of the Senators on the ice at once, that left a lot of room for everyone else.
If Hall can continue to play the way he has the first few weeks of the season, it will go a long way toward making sustaining the team’s early success a possibility. And if he starts to get a little bit of shooting luck to go along with it, he could be on his way to a very big season. Even absent that luck, the Devils remain lucky to have a player like Hall in the fold. If Nico Hischier can follow Hall’s lead and achieve his potential, the Devils could end up with one of the more fearsome 1-2 punches at forward in the league, which is certainly a strange thing to think of after the past several years of struggles. This exciting iteration of the Devils is certainly due to some of the young faces just emerging, but right now you’d be hard-pressed to point to anyone playing better than Taylor Hall, so be sure to give him his due.