Taylor Hall is coming off a career season last year, with 50 points in 45 games he was easily the best player on the Oilers. This was a benchmark for the 21 year old as well as his club; a superstar had finally arrived. Whether this was a result of a willingness to make the smart play, an evolution of the impressive youngsters physical growth, the evidence of a healthy reconstructed shoulder, or just that he found himself in the right place at the right time more often than usual, this was a year to remember for Taylor Hall.
To accompany his laurels as the teams highest scorer last year, 9th overall in the NHL, Hall was given an invitation to play for Team Canada in the World Championships and an invite to the Olympic orientation camp that took place this past week in Calgary. However, looking at the pedigree Hall has shown himself to be, I’m unsure as to whether I should be surprised, pleased, or disappointed with these results.
The early accounts of Taylor Hall start with his joining of the Windsor Spitfires. He took that team from zero to hero within his first two seasons, capturing a memorial cup title, winning the MVP award to boot, in just his second season with the team. In his third season, he repeated as memorial cup champion, winning the MVP for the second straight year. The back to back MVP/Championship combo is a feat he alone holds claim to, something that won’t likely be done again. That summer he was drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers and fans here in Oil Country couldn’t have been happier.
I remember a lot from that summer. I remember dreaming of a return to the playoffs. A return to the cup finals. I remember imagining if we’d had a player like Taylor Hall on the team that fought to the bitter end in ’06. Obviously, I had imagined they would have won. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Not every first overall pick is Sidney Crosby; they don’t all score 100 points in their first season.
Moving on and looking at his NHL career, he has had his work cut out for him with the Oilers. I’ll mention his shoulder injury first, as everything he has done up to the start of the 2013 season should have a massive asterisk next to it. When he was sidelined after a Cory Sarich hit in March of 2012, Hall admitted he had been playing with a nagging shoulder injury since junior. These shoulder injuries are fairly common with the Oilers, as Nugent-Hopkins is currently recovering from the exact same torn labrum injury Hall recovered from and no one can forget that Hemsky played the better part of three seasons with two bum shoulders. It’s a hazard of the workplace, when your workplace happens to be the corners of the ice often occupied by the likes of Robyn Regehr, Shea Weber, Kevin Bieksa, Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter and many other tough customers.
I often hear my brother complain that Nugent-Hopkins is a write-off and is too small and fragile to be an NHL player, let alone on this tiny Oilers forward corps. Frankly, I feared the same about Hall until I saw him hit the ice for the first time coming back with a new shoulder. For the record, I don’t believe for a second that Nugent-Hopkins isn’t every bit as special as Hall, but that’s a topic for another day.
With the shoulder injury in mind, the first two seasons of his career was indicative of his abrasive attitude. He was relentless, but with very little help around him it usually ended up in frustration and what hockey pundits enjoyed calling “Growing Pains.” With moderate numbers and two injury shortened seasons, he seemed only to temper the expectations of starstruck Oilers fans.
Queue the lock-out shortened 2013 NHL season. 48 games of uninterrupted fun punctuated by a postseason which boasted a whopping four canadian NHL teams, giving hope back to hockey’s native land and setting the stage for one of the most impressive championship teams the NHL has ever seen in the Chicago Blackhawks. For Taylor Hall, the campaign was formidable. Like a true professional he got better as the season progressed, driving harder and harder as the team approached the playoffs. His production shifted quite a bit. In years past, he had never amounted more assists than goals. In 2013, he had twice as many assists as goals and he was a goal off the team lead in the goal category. This is simply an observation from the stats perspective, which, I grant you, shouldn’t be ignored, but is not a defining tale. The real story of Hall’s progression was how dominant he showed on the ice. His powerful strides took over games at times, pushing the pace and his improved vision and ability to dish the puck to the right place at just the right time turned into a killer combination for the orange and blue. He began to look like the advertised power-forward the Oilers had been waiting for from his junior days with the spitfires. He began to look untouchable.
Along with the new shoulder, it seemed Hall had finally taken the next step in his young career. There is no longer a question mark next to his name when the hockey panels sit down to discuss the Oilers and their potential. He’s cashed in on a $42 million dollar deal and he’s set to earn it, playing with a consistent ferocity that gives credibility to those comparing him to Mark Messier. Taylor Hall has arrived.
The next question is: where will he stop? He’s the first line winger we’ve all dreamt about, but can he make a case to put his name next to Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Jonathon Toews and become the league’s elite? He’s already proven he can put up the numbers like them, cracking the top ten in league scoring last year. The key to this question, unless you’d like to wait and see, is a mixture of pedigree, work ethic and the talent surrounding him.
Hall’s pedigree we’ve already touched on. It may seem like I’m living in the past talking about Hall’s Memorial Cup MVP awards, but other anecdotes like his endorsement from Don Cherry who correctly predicted that Hall, 15 years old at the time of this quote, would be the first overall pick in his draft year. In truth, Hall’s pedigree doesn’t quite match up with that of Crosby or Ovechkin, but he certainly would fall in line with Stamkos who surprised all when he put up 51 goals in his sophomore season.
Hall’s work ethic simply cannot be questioned. In the modern era of the NHL, if you don’t put in the work you simply don’t make the team. NHL players aren’t the most fit athletes in the world, but you don’t reach that top gear that Hall hits every shift without putting serious hours in in the weight room.
I think the talent surrounding Hall has been the biggest question mark so far for this young star. There is definitely an argument to be made that Hall has been playing with an absurdly poor defensive core since joining the Oilers and say what you will about talent carrying play, most successful NHL teams in the modern era are built through the blueline. Tampa Bay has two of the best forwards in the show yet end up with lottery picks instead of playoff berths. The Oilers have had major issues allocating talent along their blueline through trade and free agency, but have stubbornly trod on and built through the draft. To be fair, the picks used on D-men in the past three seasons all look strong right now, with a healthy pack of Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin, David Musil, Darnell Nurse, Martin Gernat and Brandon Davidson all considered outside shots to be NHLer’s someday. Klefbom and Nurse are considered to be can’t miss prospects. Klefbom is considered to make an impact as early as this fall. However, with the institution of the Craig MacTavish era, the Oilers have had a bit more luck in the free agency department. Andrew Ference is a personality that could be an invaluable asset in calming down Justin Schultz. Anton Belov has an outside chance to be the next Andrei Markov.
The unfortunate sidenote to Belov is that he also has on outside shot to be the next Igor Ulanov. I can’t say which will prevail, all I know is he’s big, he’s got a bomb of a shot, he can hit like a freight train and he comes with a lot of recent success.
All in all I think the talent surrounding Hall is going to be improved piece by piece until the Oilers are a dynasty team once more. That seems to be the objective of GM/President tandem Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe who have stumbled around the franchise’s front offices for the better part of the last decade. To say that they’ll keep trying until they’re both fired would imply that they can be fired, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Kevin Lowe who can blatantly insult fans at will.
That’s my take. Pedigree, check. Ethic, check. Talent, you couldn’t ask for more on offence with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. The talent on the blueline will come, if not through free agency or trade then through the arrival of shiny new prospects. To say Hall is a lock to begin raking in Art Ross trophies would be a massive reach, but the stage is set for this young man to take another stride this season and cement his name amongst the top echelon of the NHL’s superstars.