When Taylor Hall was dealt to the New Jersey Devils last summer, it was as though he was sent back to the end of a long, slow-moving line — right as the bouncer allowed his friends inside.
It was a crushing blow, in its proper context. While those he toiled with would soon be liberated, Hall would languish, his career dragging idly toward its halfway point despite being one of the most productive wingers in the NHL for the better part of his seven seasons.
Hall is frustrated. He’s been frustrated. How could he not? In his six years in Edmonton, and now after one in New Jersey, Hall hasn’t been on a team that finished even within 15 points of a postseason spot in a non-lockout season, let alone one that’s gained entry into the tournament.
We often question how much athletes truly care, but never with Hall. He burns for the opportunity to play meaningful games, to have the same team success he had in Major Junior. We know this because he, unlike many athletes, is willing to admit he’s unsatisfied.
“I’ve had some long summers and this summer seems to be the longest one of all,” he said Thursday at SmashFest, a charity ping long tournament in Toronto. “I’d love to get to the playoffs, the spotlight, that energy, having your team being able to compete for the Stanley Cup. That’s all I want to play for – hopefully it happens soon.”
After another last-place finish in the division, Hall’s fifth in seven seasons, time is all that’s helped alleviate the sting felt 12 months ago. But in the absence of success, Hall projects cautious optimism about the future in New Jersey.
He knows Devils general manager Ray Shero has some really good pieces in place – beginning with unexpected windfall Nico Hischier, the latest No. 1 pick he’s been there to welcome to the league.
(Hall hasn’t seen much of Hischier yet, but caught enough footage from the Devils’ development camp to come away impressed.)
But we know an assembly of lottery talent won’t satisfy him; winning is what matters. While there are no guarantees that he will experience the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time next spring, the Devils should certainly be a more competitive team in 2017-18.
In addition to Hischier, New Jersey traded for Marcus Johansson as part of this summer’s mini redistribution of talent within the Metropolitan Division. Johansson was acquired from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, who like the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are returning a diluted iteration from one season ago due to run ins with the salary cap.
Hall thinks Johansson can have an impact beyond the basic addition and subtraction that’s beginning to level the playing field inside the division.
“He’s a great skater, looks like he can play well on both sides of his stick. Playing with those guys in Washington, those high-skill players, when you go to another team, you’re valuable to learn (from). I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
In addition to being mindful enough to sit back and poach another top-six forward from a cap-strapped club, the Devils, as a rebooting franchise, also hold a competitive advantage in negotiations with free agents. Available capital wasn’t enough to land Kevin Shattenkirk, a defenseman that would begin to solve some of the real concerns New Jersey has on the back end, but Shero was able to nab one of the summer’s more coveted free agents nonetheless.
A veteran bottom-six center with special teams capabilities, Brian Boyle will provide the Devils with stability down the middle and protection for their fleet of young pivots, Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod and Hischier.
“We need that depth in our lineup, and guys like Brian Boyle can play net-front on the power play or (take) a faceoff in his own end at the end of a game,” Hall said. “Those guys are huge and very valuable.”
After seven seasons spinning his wheels, Hall may soon find traction.
The Devils boast an impressive nucleus of young forwards, are in position to add through any means, and remain in the hands of an accomplished executive who has pulled the strings with patience and precision, up to this point. Things are trending in the right direction for this team.
Yet in the back of his mind Hall understands it often requires something extraordinary (in his case a fourth lottery win coinciding with the Connor McDavid draft) for a team to escape its doldrums.
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