Training camp has already begun and tonight will be the first set of preseason games the New Jersey Devils will play. As you would expect, there have been plenty of quips and observations as the players have taken to the ice. There are those who are in “the best shape of their life or in a long time,” and “how intense practice was,” and other such cliches. Superstar left winger Taylor Hall has provided something more substantive. As tweeted by Corey Masisak of The Athletic:
#NJDevils Taylor Hall said he hasn't spoken to Ray Shero about the contract. He said his agent spoke with Ray on July 1, but both sides are OK with going through camp and into the regular season without a resolution.— Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) September 12, 2019
Media members have followed up on this with Devils general manager Ray Shero about this. Shero confirmed what Hall stated and added to it. As reported here by TSN.ca:
“Sometime later in training camp we’ll sit down,” Shero said Monday. “From Taylor’s standpoint, I think he’s dialled in on himself right now in terms of his game and getting back on the ice after only playing 33 games last year. I look forward to seeing him at training camp. Nothing has really changed since the end of the season in terms of how this is playing out.”
”It’ll be great to see [Hall] on the ice healthy and that’s a big step in the right direction for us and for him,” Shero said. “We’re looking forward to seeing where this goes, but it’s going to be one of these things where once we get into camp, at a certain point, it’s not going to be a daily topic, I’ll tell you that.”
The second quote came after TSN wrote that the issue will not become a distraction for the team. I actually believe Shero. In fact, I do not think a lack of a contract extension is really a distraction for other players. I imagine the media may try to treat it as such. I definitely think Hall’s contract situation is a distraction for the fans.
I can understand that plenty of Devils fans reacted to what Hall and Shero said with plenty of concern. The current contract situation for Hall is a lot like what happened back in the 2011-12 season with Zach Parise. Let us compare them. Parise was the team’s top left winger and a major driver of both offense and even strength play on the squad. Hall is the team’s top left winger and a major driver of both offense and even strength play squad. Parise then had on-ice talents that come at a premium and help average teams be good and good teams be great. Hall has on-ice talents that come at a premium and help average teams be good and good teams be great. Parise was a pending unrestricted free agent after that season coming off an injury-shortened 2010-11 campaign when he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee. Hall is a pending unrestricted free agent after this season coming off an injury-shortened 2017-18 campaign when he suffered from loose fragments in his left knee. The parallels cannot be ignored. Many were unhappy at Parise signing with Minnesota. Many would not want to see a repeat of that happening again. I get it.
Unfortunately, I cannot ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. The harsh reality is that it is in all parties’ interest that there is not a contract extension. Just like what happened with Parise back in 2011. Like Parise, Hall is coming off a significant injury. Unlike Parise, Hall has a history of injuries. In nine seasons in the NHL, Hall has only appeared in over 70 games in four of them. Both sides in this situation - Hall and the Devils - need to know how effective Hall will be on the ice before seriously considering a future contract. If Hall cannot play as well as he did because of his knee or if he suffers another serious injury, then there is little reason for the Devils to offer a huge contract or for Hall to command one. Hall will turn 28 this November. His peak years have likely past; Hall is definitely a top-line player on any team but I would not count on a repeat of 2017-18 as he gets closer to 30 years old. If he can play like a star player on what should be a strong group of forwards this season, then he will likely get a lucrative contract. But those “if” statements need to be answered.
Also like Parise, Hall has control of his situation here. This is not like the recent Pavel Zacha drama when Shero made it clear that the team has his rights no matter what. Hall is free as of July 1, 2020. He can talk to whoever he wants in the days running up until that date. If he does not want to talk about a new contract with Ray Shero now or during this season, then he will not. Shero can make his best pitch and offer all kinds of huge contracts during this year’s training camp or during the regular season. If Hall and his people want to listen, then they will. But they do not have to - and that is crucial to understand about this situation.
If the plan is to maximize what he could get on the free market, then it is in his best interest to wait until the UFA-talking period before July 1 and then leverage those offers (come on, there are offers) to Shero and see which is the best. If the plan is to go to a successful team, then it is in his best interest to wait and see whether the Devils will go to the playoffs or bust - and see the state of the other teams interested in him. Without knowing how well he will play after his left knee injury and what Hall is looking for, then it is not in his best interest to sign a contract now. And likely not during this season.
You may not have enjoyed reading that. I did not really enjoy writing it. As a fan, you would want the Devils to keep the big name players and the top talent want to be here so both sides can go on and hopefully have a lot of success together. I was unhappy too when Parise signed with Minnesota. But this is how business works in the NHL. While plenty of top talent do stick with their teams with big contracts (e.g. Steve Stamkos), knowing they can walk for nothing (or traded for a relative pittance to get something back) is a real concern. It can be and likely will be distracting for plenty of fans trying to enjoy the upcoming 2019-20 season. Whether it is questions from the media asking about an extension or fans online responding to every little thing as a sign of what Hall wants to do (e.g. Hall scored two goals but did not smile after the first one this must mean he’s leaving!!11!). I do not look forward to this.
However, I do not think it will be distraction for the team. There are three reasons why.
First, the players are not just professional in the sense that they get paid for their work. They are also professional in that they too understand the business of the game. There are always players in a situation where they are in their contract year; that they are playing for the next one - be it to maximize their potential earnings or even stay in the NHL. Sure, it is different when it is Drew Stafford becoming a UFA instead of Taylor Hall. I would like to think the other teammates know how valuable it is to have Hall in the lineup compared to others. But it is still the same process and it happens in every locker room in the NHL.
For the 2019-20 Devils, there are several players who will need a new contract after this season. According to CapFriendly, team captain Andy Greene, defenseman Sami Vatanen, and Wayne Simmonds will joint Hall as pending UFAs. While their rights are more limited, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Mackenzie Blackwood, Mirco Mueller, and John Hayden (among others) are pending restricted free agents. I do not think the locker room is going to be so disrupted from so many players not inked beyond this season. If anything, most of these nine players will likely be motivated to be as successful as possible for that next contract.
Second, the 2011-12 Devils did not appear to be distracted by it. At least not to any material result. Since Hall’s situation is analgous to Parise’s, let us look back at that season. The Devils had other ongoing issues. There were concerns about ownership having enough money to fund the Devils. There was another new head coach in Peter DeBoer. The team stunk it up in 2010-11 and expectations were to rebound. The goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg was old and becoming a concern. Travis Zajac, who was intended to be a top center in between Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, was injured in early September 2011 and missed most of the season. That was a lot for a team to handle ahead of that season.
Yet the 2011-12 Devils went 48-28-6 for 102 points, comfortably earned a playoff spot, and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in dramatic fashion. Despite not knowing if Parise was going to stay or go, the Devils still managed to grind out a series victory over Florida in the first round, rebound from a bad Game 1 in Philadelphia to knock them out in four straight, and respond to two shutouts by the False King of New York to take the series in Game 6 ending with Adam Henrique cementing his place in Devils history. The Devils did not win the Cup but they did not get totally wrecked as they lost to Los Angeles in six games. The previously mentioned issues did not keep the team from succeeding way beyond anyone’s expectations in that campaign. It is possible that the Devils organization at the time was well-equipped to compartmentalize those issues and focus on the work to be done and the swarming to be put up. The point is that they were able to have a fantastic campaign even with all of these issues in the background. Therefore, it is more than possible for the 2019-20 Devils to rise up and make a strong push for the playoffs even if Hall is not interested in a contract extension. Again, since doing well in a contract year is relevant to his best interests, I am confident he will put in his best efforts to make that playoff push happen.
It is for those two reasons that I do not think it will be an issue for the Devils as a team. It will be for those following the team. It will definitely be brought up by the media. The “distraction” narrative is a popular one across all sports. But I really doubt it will be one for those who play the games. I do not think, say, Hischier is going to have a worse game not knowing if Hall will come back next season. If anything, Hischier is going to hockey so hard to get a sweet deal like some of the RFA players did this year.
As one final point, I would be careful what you wish for if you think the Devils need to sign Hall to an eight-season contract yesterday. Parise’s contract was quite large in 2012; CapFriendly lists it as 12.56% of Minnesota’s cap at the time of signing. While the cap ceiling makes a $7.538 million cap hit more palatable, he’s 35, the contract has five more seasons on it after this one, and he has a no movement clause. Parise may have been quite a good player for Minnesota but he has not put up production for the Wild like he did in New Jersey and he has not been fully healthy either. He is not a scrub but the Wild did not get the guy that made the Rock chant “MVP” back in 2008-09 either. One could argue that the Wild erred on giving Parise such a long contract even if the cap increases mitigated his actual cap hit. Fortunately for the Devils, Hall cannot get a 13-season contract like Parise did in 2012. The larger point remains: a 34-year old Hall with a significant cap hit on the books may go rotten. If it takes an eight-season deal to keep him, then so be it - provided he can still be a star for the team for most of those eight seasons. This goes back to the earlier point about the injury. Hall and the Devils need to find out with this upcoming season how good Hall can be after his left knee surgery. Which is why it makes sense that nothing has been signed yet.
Of course, I could end up being totally wrong about all of this and Hall signs some kind of extension before October 4. Such is it is when presenting an opinion. All of the same, I still stand by the notion that it is not in the Devils’ or Hall’s best interest to sign an extension early. And I still stand by the fact that while this may be a distraction for you and me, I do not think it will for the Devils players themselves. What do you think? Do you think Hall’s contract situation - or anyone else’s - would impact the team for the 2019-20 season? Please let me know your answers and other thoughts about Hall’s lack of a contract extension in the comments. Thank you for reading.