CALGARY – Taylor Hall’s early days in the NHL have been an exercise in adaptation on and off the ice.
The 18-year-old from Kingston, Ont., recently assembled Ikea stools for the apartment he shares with Edmonton Oilers teammate Jordan Eberle. Hall discovered he is more adept with a hockey stick than an Allen wrench.
“My stools didn’t turn out the way they looked on the outside of the box, but they still worked,” Hall said Tuesday in Calgary prior to playing the Flames.
From furnishing his own place to transforming his junior game into one worthy of the NHL, Hall is learning the life of a professional hockey player.
As the No. 1 pick in this year’s NHL entry draft, he’s doing it under the microscope. Eyes follow him up and down the ice in every building in the NHL, including his own Rexall Place in Edmonton. After every game and practice, he turns from his locker-room stall to face a wall of cameras and microphones.
After seven NHL games, he has yet to score a goal and is asked about it constantly.
“I think the media has been kind of all over him a little bit, but he’s handled it great,” Eberle said. “He’s only 18-years-old and the way he’s doing it is incredible. I don’t think things are really wearing on him or else I can’t tell and he’s hiding it well.”
There isn’t much patience in professional sports. Expectations are also weighty for the first overall draft pick in Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL.
But Hall is the first Canadian to go first overall to a Canadian team since Ottawa’s Chris Phillips in 1996. There is an extra layer of attention and hype reserved for those players in this country.
“It’s not a grind at all,” Hall insisted. “Once you’re in that spotlight you get used to it a little bit. It hasn’t been too bad at all.
“Edmonton is a really good combination of kind of a fishbowl, but they’re pretty committed to a re-build. They know we’re going to be re-building team in the next few years and they’re pretty happy with that.”
Hall, six-foot-one and 185 pounds, is explosive in gaining the puck and tenacious keeping it. He barrels into corners, sometimes recklessly. That style served him well in the Ontario Hockey League with Windsor, so he’s not likely to abandon it now.
“In junior he played on the edge, you could tell, but coaches liked that,” said the 21-year-old Eberle. “At this level you want that. As a guy on the bench, you feed off that and catch the energy from that.”
The Oilers have endorsed his performance in ice time as he averages well over 16 minutes per game. Head coach Tom Renney recently said Hall will remain with the Oilers this season unless someone in management tells him otherwise.
In Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Flames, Hall was sent out on the ice in the third period and in overtime when the score was tied 4-4. He had two shots on net and four of them blocked during his 19 minutes of action.
“He gets better and better and I think he’s been subtly good all along,” Renney said. “To me he’s becoming more and more comfortable with what he is in this lineup and in this league.
“We want him to continue to assert himself to the point where he feels he can make a bigger contribution still and I believe, as we all do, that he can.”
Once Hall plays his 10th NHL game, his three-year entry level contract kicks in and the clock begins ticking towards free agency at the age of 25.
Hall has one assist and is playing on a line with Eberle and captain Shawn Horcoff. He was accustomed to scoring a lot in the OHL, but is willing to be patient with himself.
Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick two years ago, didn’t score a goal until his ninth NHL game for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I’m not too focused on what my stat-line is right now,” Hall said. “You have to be patient. I know that.
“People may judge you on your rookie season, but at the end of the day, it’s not about what your rookie season is. It’s how you do in your prime. I know I’m going to be a good player along the line.”
He says the Oilers coaching staff has struck the right balance in feedback, giving him enough to feel good about hisgame without overwhelming him. Usually, it’s been an informal chat at the end of practice about the game the previous night.
“I can come with an encyclopedia full of information and you’re right, paralyse the kid,” Renney said. “I think you’ve got to let your coaching instincts come into play here and pick the time, pick the amount and pick the language.
“That’s the fun of coaching, being able to connect with your different players under what ever circumstance they might have in order to get the best out of them. He doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed by it at all.”