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Hart of the Devils: Hall deserves more than a mention in MVP conversation

The New Jersey Devils added players at the NHL trade deadline as they look to snap a five-year playoff drought, but chances are they would be in the draft lottery conversation if not for Taylor Hall.

In a literal sense, New Jersey GM Ray Shero is responsible for what the Devils did at, and ahead of, the NHL trade deadline. It’s Shero who negotiated with the New York Rangers to acquire Michael Grabner in exchange for a 2018 second-round pick and prospect Igor Rykov. And it was Shero was in charge of landing Patrick Maroon from the Edmonton Oilers for a 2019 third-round pick and prospect J.D. Dudek. But in a more abstract way, the person actually responsible for making either deal possible isn’t Shero. Heck, it’s not even anyone inside the New Jersey front office. 

Rather, it’s Taylor Hall. Because without his play this season there’s no way New Jersey is in a wild-card spot as the post-deadline schedule begins and there’s most certainly no way the Devils are anything that even remotely resembles a buyer at the deadline.

Hyperbolic as that may seem, it’s absolutely the truth as Hall has been nothing short of outstanding in what projects to be the greatest statistical season of his career. Through 57 games, Hall has 26 goals and 66 points. If he continues to score as he has, he will finish the season with 35 goals and nearly 90 points, shattering the 27-goal, 80-point career-highs he set back in 2013-14 as a member of the Oilers. That’s not to mention Hall’s ongoing personal 21-game point streak. We say “personal,” of course, because he missed three games with a hand injury after scoring in seven straight games, but has returned with points in each of his past 14 outings.

Hall’s impressive streak has made his season almost impossible to ignore, too. Win or lose, he has found the scoresheet and helped to keep New Jersey, an unexpected playoff contender, right in the thick of the Eastern Conference wild-card race. And it might even be enough to put him into the Hart Trophy conversation.

As recently as last month, the odds-on favorite for MVP honors was Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov. He’s been the pole-to-pole scoring leader this season and currently maintains a six-point lead in the Art Ross Trophy race, he’s right in the thick of the Rocket Richard Trophy race and he has been the catalyst behind the NHL’s top offense on the league’s first-place team. But as the gap between Kucherov and other top scorers has lessened, though, the Hart race has opened up.

Credible cases can be made for other players, to be sure. Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin is playing some of the greatest hockey of his career right now. Likewise, Colorado Avalanche standout Nathan MacKinnon tossed his hat in the ring around the midpoint of the campaign and remains in the race, while Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler continues to be a sneaky candidate for the Hart. None of this is to mention the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux, Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin or Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, each of whom are having outstanding seasons for playoff contenders.

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What Hall presents, though, is a Hart candidate who fits the very definition of the award. Per the league, the Hart is to be “given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team,” and it’s hard to see how Hall wouldn’t be in that conversation. 

Thanks in part to this point streak, Hall is tied for 17th in goals and sits 14th in points, but, more impressively, he has a 25-point lead over his next-closest teammate. No player in the league, not even defending scoring champion Connor McDavid, has a wider margin atop his own team’s scoring table. And the percentage of the Devils’ offense Hall has accounted for is staggering. He has scored 26 of New Jersey’s 181 goals, or roughly 14.4 percent. That’s the 17th-highest rate among the NHL’s top 50 point-getters. In addition, he’s factored in on more than one-third of their total offense — 36.5 percent of the Devils’ goals, to be exact, 10th-best among the top 50 scorers. This is despite the fact he’s missed five games this season, during which time New Jersey scored a grand total of eight goals. (Hall moves to 15.0 percent and 38.2 percent, respectively, if you factor out his absences.)

The kicker here, though, is that Hall has accomplished this while being the sole go-to option in New Jersey. It’s not like the Devils possess a Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand or Patrik Laine. Even MacKinnon has a sophomore sniper in Mikko Rantanen. At different points this season, and sometimes for extended periods, New Jersey has been without top-six center Travis Zajac and scoring winger Kyle Palmieri, while they traded away Adam Henrique in the early part of the campaign. That has left Hall to work with teenage freshmen Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt as his most frequent linemates this season. And it’s not a knock against either player, particularly as they’re having solid rookie seasons, but two freshmen who are only learning the ropes of the NHL hardly make for an all-star caliber trio. Yet, Hall has made it work no matter the skill or experience level of his linemates.

If New Jersey makes the playoffs — and that is no doubt their aim given they acquired more scoring at the deadline — it will be because of Hall. Remove him from the equation and the Devils can forget about the post-season. Matter of fact, take him out of New Jersey this season and we might be talking about Rasmus Dahlin heading to the Devils at the draft. So, if the Hart Trophy is decided by definition, don’t be surprised if the hardware is handed to Hall.

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