PENTICTON, B.C. – Like John Tavares and Sidney Crosby before him, Taylor Hall will shed his label as a No. 1 draft pick and morph into an NHL player.
His performance, statistics and accomplishments in the league will eventually make his draft status a footnote. The 18-year-old winger from Kingston, Ont., looks forward to that time in his career, but Hall isn’t wishing this part of his life away.
Hall is playing his first games as an Edmonton Oiler this week at the five-team Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C. These games are a prelude to the main camp starting Friday, when he’ll play with and against NHL veterans for the first time.
“The thing I’m most excited for is to be an Edmonton Oiler,” Hall said Monday. “I want to give myself every opportunity to do that. Once that day finally comes, I want to be the best player I can and contribute in every way possible.
“Obviously going No. 1 was a fantastic experience and something I’ll never forget, but it’s about having a good career.”
Hall was the most valuable player in leading the Windsor Spitfires in back-to-back Memorial Cups. He also played for Canada in a silver-medal effort at this year’s world junior hockey championship in Saskatoon.
But trying to win a spot on an NHL team as an 18-year-old is a challenge of a different sort. There are players in Penticton who have been to two or three NHL camps and some have spent time in the American Hockey League. Hall is getting a taste of the pros in Penticton, but not the full meal yet.
“It was definitely faster than an OHL game,” Hall observed. “I haven’t had a lot of interaction with pro guys, but you can see the guys here who have been to pro camps before. When I got the puck, I didn’t have the same time that I would have had with the Spits. That was something I was expecting and I need to get used to.
“You have to go fast when you need to and slow when you need to. I’m really focused on being in the area where the puck is going to go. Just like Wayne Gretzky said, you’ve got to go where the puck’s going to go and not where it is. Hopefully, I can get better at that.”
And Hall didn’t seem to be saving himself for main camp in his opening game of the rookie tournament Sunday, in which the Oilers downed the Canucks 4-1. In addition to contributing an assist, Hall threw a couple checks in the corners and went down hard, which drew a few gasps.
In addition to showcasing his speed, hands and hockey sense, Hall wants to show the Oiler brass he’s not afraid to get his nose dirty.
“They drafted me for a reason,” the six-foot-one, 185-pound forward said. “They thought I was a player who could make a difference. I’m not going to change my game just because people say you can get hurt.
“There’s a lot of players who play on the edge, play desperate and play aggressive that don’t get hurt and there’s a lot of players that don’t go into the corners and shy away from hits that do get hurt. I’m just trying to find my game that I’ve always played.”
Jordan Eberle, the Oilers’ first-round pick two years ago and now Hall’s roommate, says main camp will be another adjustment for Hall.
“It’s a big step up. The competition is only going to get bigger and stronger,” the 20-year-old said. “He’s a smart enough kid that he understands that. He’s played in a lot of big games. I think his game is ready already and that’s exciting to see.”
In the first of two games Monday, Jon Rheault scored a hat trick to lead the Calgary Flames to an 8-4 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
Carter Bancks, Bryan Cameron, Mikael Backlund, Keith Seabrook and Josh Meyers also scored for Calgary. John Kurtz, Jake Newton, Jake Carrick and Devante Smith-Pelley replied for Anaheim.
Matt Keetley earned the win with 18 saves. Anaheim goaltender Marco Cousineau faced 41 shots and stopped 33 in the loss.
In Monday’s late game, Aaron Volpatti scored a pair of goals to lead the Canucks to a 5-3 win over the Sharks. Matt Fraser, Chris Tanev and Pierre-Olivier Morin also scored for Vancouver. Nick Schaus had two goals for San Jose, while Leigh Salters also scored.
Vancouver goalie Eddie Lack 35 made saves for the win, while Thomas Heemskerk made 22 stops in the loss.
The debate going into the NHL draft in Los Angeles last June was whether the Oilers would take Hall or Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers with the first overall pick.
One of the many reasons the Oilers decided on Hall was his confidence and willingness to embrace the expectations that come with being No. 1.
“We interviewed him prior to being selected and one of the questions weasked was “are you ready to be the No. 1 pick in the National Hockey League?’ Tambellini recalled. “His answers were very calm. It’s not something that’s just been thrown on him. He’s been that guy, 1a or 1b for the last two or three years. I don’t think it’s that big a deal for him.”
The Young Stars Tournament may not be the real thing in terms of playing in the NHL, but Hall is soaking up what experiences he can to prepare himself for the next step.
“Taylor is obviously just starting,” Tambellini said. “It’s a chance to get a feel of the pace and the feel of what it’s like to play against another organization in the National Hockey League and not just the training camp scenario.
“It’s step one, so there is a ways to go.”