Taylor Hall is the New Jersey Devils’ star forward. The hope is that Nico Hischier can become a star forward. The past has included past stars like Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, and . While some players have had some productive seasons, when Ray Shero moved Adam Larsson to Edmonton, he brought back a star. Star players are a big deal and in the case of Hall, he can become an even bigger deal in 2017-18.
Ahead of the opening of training camp, the word came out through the star-makers themselves: the media. Mike Morreale at NHL.com had it right in the headline: Taylor Hall is expected to do more this season. Here’s the main quote from Ray Shero from Morreale’s article:
"I expect more and he knows that," general manager Ray Shero said during the first day of training camp Thursday. "We met at the end of the year for a long time and wanted him to understand what it is to become the best player he can be.
"I think he's been fantastic this summer and he's capable of more, but it starts with a lot of different things than what's happening on the ice in terms of training."
And Hall seemingly agreed:
"I hope to improve on my season from a year ago," Hall said. "It wasn't a bad season by any means, but I definitely think that just coming in and being more comfortable with the situation and knowing what to expect in the area and the team and coaching staff, will be good.”
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be all that meaningful. Expecting a player on a bad team to do better seems like a common thing that comes out publicly at training camp. It seems that way for the past few years in Newark, at least. Still, it does feel like it’s just a camp storyline that will be forgotten once actual games happen. Something to pile in there with the “a player believing that this is the season” and “so-and-so is added X pounds and is now in the best shape of his life” and “what’s-his-name changed his training this Summer and is now in the best shape of his life” and “the ugly one is entering camp with a point to prove and a job to earn“ storylines that seemingly come out every September. (ASIDED! Hall actually did change his training this Summer according to Chris Ryan at NJ.com) Worrying about it makes about as much sense as typing on a keyboard or doodling on looseleaf notebook paper with boxing gloves on.
However, I think this is actually a fair expectation from management. For the Devils to have their re-build lead to actual progress, their top players need to be performing as well as they can. Hall is the team’s top forward so that would be him. I am actually pleased that Hall at least publicly recognizes he can be better. What’s more is that I honestly think he will for a number of reasons.
Hall, the 5-on-5 Scoring Machine - Until 2016-17
Before jumping into those reasons, I think it is best to highlight what makes Hall so special to begin with. Simply, he’s been a 5-on-5 scoring machine for the better part of the last five seasons. Pat Holden at Russian Machine Never Breaks, a Capitals blog, saw the list of the NHL’s top 20 left wingers and lamented that Hall was just twentieth back in August. His words: “criminally underrated.” Why? Because of his 5-on-5 scoring rate prior to his trade to New Jersey. Using Hockey Analysis’ site as evidence, this is what he tweeted at the time of the deal:
Hockey Analysis is no longer with us, so I can’t tell you where Hall would rate over the last five seasons or the last four seasons starting from his first with the Devils. But the picture shows that only two players in the entire NHL had a better points per 60 minute rate in 5-on-5 play than Hall from 2012 to 2016: Sidney Crosby and Jamie Benn. That’s it. Hall’s 2.49 rate surpassed the likes of other scoring machines like Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Kane, and Ryan Getzlaf. When the Devils moved Larsson, they picked up someone who excelled at producing in 5-on-5 situations. Whether that’s shots (601, or 2.35 per game), assists (107 assists or about 0.42 per game; 70 primary assists or about .275 per game), shooting attempts (1045, or 4.09 per game), or points.
If there was one flaw in that table prior to Hall joining the Devils, then it was in his shooting percentage. He was the only one in the top ten list from Holden with a shooting percentage below 10%. That has held his production from being really impressive. Not that it isn’t otherwise. A player putting up 0.82 goals per sixty minutes with 53 goals scored in 5-on-5 play over a four-season timeframe is still remarkable.
Why focus on 5-on-5? Other than that Hall excelled there, he’s never been a very prolific power play scorer. It’s certainly not bad. According to Hockey Reference, however, Hall has never topped twenty power play points in a season except for 13-power-play-goal 2011-12 season. Hall’s points largely come from 5-on-5 play.
That four year timeframe included the most productive seasons of Hall’s career so far: the 2013 and 2013-14 seasons where he did average over a point per game as per Hockey-Reference. So what happened to Hall in 2016-17 with the Devils?
The Rough 2016-17 Season for Hall
Hall was able to play in 72 games and received top minutes for the Devils. Per NHL.com, Hall finished the season tied for the team lead in points (53 and the tie was with Kyle Palmieri, his common linemate) and in shots (238). But this was a rough season for his numbers in light of his past ways with Edmonton. Plenty went awry for Hall to see his 5-on-5 scoring rate drop quite a bit. Natural Stat Trick has his 5-on-5 numbers season-by-season. Three major points stick out:
- Hall only scored eight goals, tied with 2014-15 for the fewest. That was a season where injuries cut his season short to only 53 games. Other seasons saw him reach double digits.
- Hall’s shooting percentage at 5-on-5 was never all that high (it surpassed 10% once), but his 2016-17 percentage with the Devils was a woefully low 4.68%. Hall’s previous low was in his rookie season where he posted a 6.89%.
- While Hall led the team in 5-on-5 shots and individual shooting attempts, they were drop offs from his 2015-16 season. While it is true he played ten more games in that season, a difference of 38 shots and 77 shooting attempts would have required Hall to shoot more much more often than he did for the last four years he played with the Oilers. Fewer opportunities mean fewer points.
All combined and it’s easier to see how Hall ended up with a not-so-Hall-esque 1.65 points per sixty minutes in 5-on-5 play. A rate that rated second on the team behind Palmieri.
It was not all bad for Hall - with respect to how he stacked up on the team. He still led the Devils in 5-on-5 scoring with 30 points. He still led the team by far with 171 5-on-5 shots on net and 282 individual shooting attempts. Despite the team being well in the red in Corsi For percentage, Hall was one of five regular skaters (min. 25 games played) that exceeded 50% CF% and one of two skaters that exceeded 51% (the other was Beau Bennett). Relative to the Devils, Hall was the main man in 5-on-5 play. Relative to Hall’s own career, this was not a good season. Fortunately, I think things can be better for next season - and thereby satisfy the “expect to do more” ask.
A Number of Reasons to Hope for a Better 5-on-5 Season from Hall
First and foremost, some better puck luck would do wonders. I think it is coming. Hall’s shooting percentage in 5-on-5 situations was really, really low last season. Lower than it is ever was. Lower than most of last season’s roster. Short of trying to fail, I think Hall can certainly pick up a few more bounces for goals. That adds points.
Second, Hall may be able to take more initiative. Hall may be able to get the puck more often to work with. Last season, Hall still managed to put up over 200 shots by himself, close to 300 shooting attempts, and remain a positive CF% player on a negative CF% team. On top of that, the Devils lacked scorers last season. They had had exactly three 20+ goal scorers: Palmieri, Hall, and Adam Henrique. In 5-on-5 play, Palmieri (15 goals on 118 shots) and Henrique (10 goals on 99 shots) were the only ones to break double-digits. While I understand that Palmieri is a shooter and Henrique can go on nice little streaks, the numbers suggest that Hall should absolutely be the main player on his line to fire away. No, not all shooting attempts and shots are the same; Hall firing a lot more prayers from the blueline will probably not yield more production. But Hall isn’t that kind of player and this isn’t about gaming the system. It’s about Hall being given more of a green. With the lines in a flux due to Travis Zajac being out, Marcus Johansson and Nico Hischier coming in, and Adam Henrique not being guaranteed the top center role, the need is stronger than ever for Hall to be the main threat on his light. His past shooting percentages have never been that high, but more attempts will likely yield more results.
Third, Hall may receive better support. According to Natural Stat Trick, the run of play was better with Hall playing with Damon Severson than Ben Lovejoy. Given their skillsets, Severson could potentially contribute more shooting and scoring opportunities than a defensive-defenseman such as Lovejoy ever could. Hall managed to play well with third-pairing types like Jon Merrill and Kyle Quincey. Should Will Butcher show that his offensive skills can belong at a NHL level, then it’s possible Hall can benefit from Butcher on a lower pairing too. Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier are effectively wildcards, but both have tantalizing offensive potential. Should either mesh well with Hall, it will be a plus. There’s also Marcus Johansson. One of his pluses is that he can play either forward position and he has thrived alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in the past. Should Johansson and Hall play well off each other in the run of play, then that’s a plus. These are all possibilities of teammates for Hall at some point in this season and I see that as another reason to be hopeful.
The larger point is that, while it is more apparent in their prospect system, the 2017-18 Devils appears to me to have more offensive talent on it than last season’s roster. That can benefit someone like Hall in a big way. A big part of Hall’s 5-on-5 production are assists. For Hall to pick up more A’s, someone needs to be getting more G’s. And those usually don’t happen without the SOG’s. And those do not happen without better play in generating the attack. A lot of what undercut the Devils last season - what made them a “soft” team - was their struggle at executing plays. Having more offensive players, even developing ones, is a way to make that less of a struggle. And that will give players like Hall (and Palmieri and others) more opportunities to actually attack the opposition for attempts, shots, and points. Provided that the coaching staff gets out of their own way (e.g. Severson should get to play with Andy Greene and with Hall instead of Hall, Greene, and Lovejoy), then this could happen.
Fourth, the head coach and the coaching has every incentive to help Hall make progress. John Hynes is in the last year of his contract and his staff went largely unchanged in this offseason. That’s really weird after a terrible hockey season. I would point out that the Devils largely went away from trying (I didn’t write succeeding) at being a more offensive team during last season. I can’t pinpoint when but the 2016 portion of the season showed a far more effective Devils team than the 2017 portion of the season. While Hall’s own splits didn’t seem to be affected, if you want him to do more then others need to do more if only for more opportunities for Hall to be involved. I’m hopeful that with the additions to the roster, Hynes and his staff will try to apply tactics and instruction to utilize their skills. Hopefully that will mean fewer dump-and-chases, long first passes to teammates on the sideboards that opponents can easily deny, and offensive movements that focus on getting the puck to the point for a low percentage shot and nothing more. If the coaches are able to get more out of the Devils in 5-on-5 play, then Hall and plenty of other players will definitely have more chances to attack. That will likely lead to more results.
A Last Bit of Perspective
Will all of this guarantee Hall to 50 points at 5-on-5 and about 15 more from the power play? No. But it’s why I think Hall can be more productive. By being more productive, he’ll should have the perception that he “did more” in 2017-18. However, I do want to leave you with some perspective with respect to points from NHL.com:
If a player like Hall and Palmieri finished with at least 50 points, then they finished in the top 100 scorers last season. Technically tied for 98th to be more precise. If a player finished with 60 points then, they would have ranked 43rd in scoring. 70 points would stick a player within the top 20 scorers - tied for eighteenth. 80 points would mean a player finished in the top ten scorers - eighth, even! - last season. 90 would mean only Connor McDavid and 100 points put up more. The point is that to be a top-level forward from a production standpoint, 60-70 points would really accomplish that. (Even the 50-point area could depending on what else that player does.) Point totals have deflated from years ago and so should the expectations from a pure point perspective. 50 points in 5-on-5 play alone would be an impressive achievement and if Hall can come close to that, then we can say he’s back to his Oilers form. It would be more obvious that he is a star forward. And therefore possibly meeting expectations. But even if he doesn’t and repeats his 2016-17 output, it doesn’t mean that Hall isn’t a star because, again, the vast majority of the league isn’t putting up 50 points either.
I think Hall can do more through more coming from him in 5-on-5 play. I do think there are a lot of variables with respect to teammates, coaching, and others (health). But it is entirely possible to be more productive. Do you think he can do it? If so, how? Please leave your thoughts on Hall and what else he and others can do in the comments. Thank you for reading.