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New Jersey state of mind: Hall down with the Devils

What a difference a year makes. With the breakup finally behind him, Taylor Hall is now living it up in New Jersey and loving the winning ways he never experienced in Edmonton.

Consider yourself warned. If you ever find yourself being invited to meet over a meal with New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero, it would be wise to clear the schedule. The man does some of his best work and forges his most important relationships while breaking bread. Prior to drafting Nico Hischier first overall last June, Shero had lunch with the kid in Bern, Switzerland, a meal that lasted five hours and stretched into afternoon coffee. Good thing they were in Europe. Otherwise it probably would have been dinnertime by the time they finished lunch.

So it was that after the Devils missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season that Shero decided to eschew the traditional exit meeting in favor of having dinner with his star left winger, Taylor Hall. Time got away from them on this one, too. Shero stopped looking at his watch after the four-hour mark. The dinner went so long that, in a cruel, cruel irony, about halfway through the meal, Shero looked up at one of the television sets and noticed the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks were playing in their second-round playoff series. But Shero figured that was a good thing. If the conversation had gone south and Hall told Shero he wanted out, the two probably would have parted before the appetizers had arrived.

At one point in the proceedings, Shero looked at Hall and posed what could have been a really awkward question. He asked Hall where he thought his game was, on a percentage basis, compared to where it could be at his best. Hall told Shero to go first. Shero said 35 percent. Hall remarked that he thought Shero was a really tough grader and offered 50. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s call it 40.’ ” Hall was right about Shero being tough, because it doesn’t take long to figure out that if his GM had truly been willing to split the difference, it would have actually been 42.5.

The point of the exercise, though, was achieved. Both sides acknowledged there was a lot of room for positive growth and that the player had barely scratched the surface of his potential. Before coming to the Devils, Hall had been in a losing environment for, well, all his NHL career, and the team was getting concerned that accepting it was coming too easily to him. What they didn’t know, however, and what Shero gleaned most from the conversation, is that Hall is a creature of comfort. Some players thrive amid uncertainty and chaos, but Hall isn’t one of them. He’s truly at his best as a player and person when he feels comfortable and secure in his surroundings. It’s been that way since his parents, Kim Strba and Steve Hall, raised him. The family moved from Calgary to Kingston, Ont., when their only child was 13 and Hall took about a year to feel comfortable in his new surroundings. Once he did, he prospered.

Shero wasn’t exactly dealing with a broken man that night – just one who needed some assurance that things were moving in the right direction. Devils coach John Hynes made a special trip to Hall’s home training base in Toronto during the summer to meet with him and put it best when he said, “I think he needed to know we had his back and we needed to know he had ours.”

Eight months later, the Devils were in first place in the dog’s breakfast known as the Metropolitan Division. It was no surprise Hall was leading the team in scoring and producing at better than a point-per-game clip, but what was turning heads was that the four next-highest scoring Devils – Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher and Brian Gibbons – combined for zero NHL games last season. Starting with Hall, Shero was intent on building a team based on speed, and he now has a cast of players who move both the puck and their feet quickly.

As for Hall, he’s finally settled into life with the Devils. When he arrived in New Jersey a little more than a year ago, Hall had been in the NHL for six seasons, and the tandem of Shero and Hynes represented the fifth GM and the fifth coach of his career. Clearly the time and restaurant expenses Shero and Hynes set aside for Hall were well spent. Hall has a belief in the Devils coaches and management, and they know the player is in for the long haul. “This is his team now,” Hynes said. “These are his guys. I think you’re seeing a guy who is comfortable with his situation, and the great thing for us is he’s a hungry, hungry, talented player.”

And that comfort level goes beyond the ice for Hall. He’s settled into an apartment near his teammates in Hoboken, and nothing seems as overwhelming as it once did. The thought of jumping in his car and, depending on Holland Tunnel traffic, being in New York City within a half hour is one that appeals to him. Whether it’s taking his billets from his junior days in Windsor to see Miss Saigon or simply heading over with a teammate for a couple beers and a walk around Manhattan, Hall has learned to embrace all of it. “Anything different from New Jersey would feel weird now,” Hall said. “And that’s a good thing.”

That represents a big 180 from the emotionally fragile young man who arrived there last fall. It has been well documented how difficult it was for Hall to accept he had been traded from the Oilers just as things were getting good there. Hall felt abandoned and betrayed, and watching his former team – and Adam Larsson, the player he was traded for – have so much success last season made the transition even more difficult. It certainly did nothing to quell the critics who thought maybe Hall was part of the problem and not the solution in Edmonton. It’s a notion that makes his new GM laugh. “They would have done well with (Hall),” Shero said, “and we would have done s---ty with Adam. That’s just where both teams were.”

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Early this season, the Oilers were looking like a team that wasn’t nearly as good as advertised, while the Devils were exceeding everyone’s expectations. The Oilers, aside from a couple notable exceptions, looked as a team a tad slow and unable to keep up to the crazy speed of their all-world captain. Weird. It almost seems as though a winger with a ton of speed who likes to get the puck and give the puck and has size and a high skill level might be what’s missing in Edmonton these days. Hall takes no particular joy in watching his former team struggle to regain its form from last season. He was quoted as saying after the Oilers bowed out in seven games to the Ducks in the playoffs that he was happy they had lost, but what he meant was that he was relieved that both teams’ seasons were over and that there could finally be closure.

The Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid exchanges words with Taylor Hall on November 3, 2017, at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

To relate it to a real-life situation, it’s kind of like this. You and your partner have been together for six years and you’ve had a lot of ups and downs. Just as the relationship looks to be turning the corner – Wham! – you’re blindsided by a breakup. A couple months later, you check Instagram and Facebook and your partner appears to be doing great and as much as you want to say the same thing, you really can’t. You go through the seven stages of grief and you come out the other side a stronger and more mature person, and you even learn to look upon the relationship fondly. “I’d say that’s a decent analogy,” Hall said. “Like, what do they say? ‘Don’t be mad because it ended, smile because it happened.’ I don’t care to see them lose anymore. They’re a team in the other conference, and I’m happy to say that. Last year, if they had been losing to start the year, I would have been like, ‘OK, screw them.’ But I don’t feel like that at all this year. I have friends on that team still, and I know that city is passionate about their hockey, so I kind of feel bad. In saying that, they’re a lot better than their record suggests. They have the best player in the world, and as long as they’re healthy, they’re going to be in the playoffs and do some damage. I have no doubt about that.”

During Hall’s time in Edmonton, the Oilers had been so bad for so long that it was getting more and more difficult to wade through what the problems were. The revolving doors in the coach’s and GM’s offices didn’t help, but it wasn’t long ago that the Oilers were building their team around Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, Jordan Eberle and Hall. Three of the four are now gone, and Hall was part of the losing for so long that it was getting difficult to remember a time when things were different. So different.

Let’s start in 2008 when Hall helped Team Ontario to a gold medal at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Four months after that, as a late-birthday 16-year-old, he helped Canada win the Under-18 World Championship. Two years later, as an 18-year-old, he had 12 points in the World Junior Championship with Canada being denied a sixth straight title by losing the gold-medal game in overtime. Meanwhile, he was tearing up major junior with the Spitfires, winning back-to-back OHL titles and Memorial Cups, where he was MVP in both tournaments, before being taken first overall by the Oilers in 2010. As a pro, he was a part of gold-winning World Championship teams for Canada in 2015 and 2016. It all went so south with the Oilers, but the numbers, both the ones that hit you right in the eyeballs and the subtler analytics numbers, suggest Hall did his part. In fact, if Alex Ovechkin had not been named a second-team all-star at left wing the only season he actually played right wing (2012-13), there’s a good chance that designation would have gone to Hall.

But on any losing team, there are lightning rods, and Hall was one of them in Edmonton. By the time he left the Oilers, he was seen as another underachieving young player who was rewarded with a long-term deal but wasn’t holding up his end of it. So the Oilers dealt a talented, possession-driving player for a minute-munching defensive defenseman with almost no offensive potential. And even though the trade looked very good from an Oilers’ perspective last season, there are not too many GMs (if any at all) in the NHL who would not sacrifice Larsson for the opportunity to get Hall 100 days out of 100. “I don’t take full, full responsibility for the fact I have not been in playoffs,” Hall said. “If you look at some of the teams I was on, there’s no chance we were making the playoffs. In junior I had a lot of success, and it almost seemed like hockey was too easy. It hasn’t worked out in the NHL yet. I’d love to play in a playoff game. That’s a great stage for a player to show what he is. I’ve never even been in a playoff race. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

It’s not as though Hall is in danger of becoming a modern-day Guy Charron, who was traded in 1970-71, his rookie season, from the Montreal Canadiens to the Detroit Red Wings as part of a package for Frank Mahovlich. The Canadiens went on to win six Stanley Cups in the nine years after that, and Charron, an industrious and productive center, proceeded to play for some truly god-awful teams and endured a 734-game career without ever playing a playoff game. Jay Bouwmeester played 764 games before logging any meaningful spring games, and Ron Hainsey appeared in a mind-boggling 907 without post-season participation before being traded to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last season and winning the Stanley Cup with them at 36. Should Hall play all 82 games for the Devils this season and make the playoffs, his streak stops at 535.

Whenever Hall needs some perspective on the life of a professional athlete, he doesn’t have far to turn. Hall’s father, Steve, was drafted by the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos, then dealt to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers along with Willard Reaves in 1983. Upon Hall’s arrival, Bombers GM Cal Murphy told him he could be the next Joe Poplawski. If you don’t know who that is, look it up. It’s a pretty big deal. So Steve, now a professional painter, does have some insight on living up to lofty expectations. (Hall did not reach the heights predicted for him, but Reaves did. The year of the trade, Reaves went on to be named the CFL’s rookie of the year and a year later won a Grey Cup with the Bombers and was the league’s most outstanding player. He later had a son, Ryan, who took up hockey and now plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. True story.)

Steve Hall switched to bobsledding and was due to represent Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary when his hopes were suddenly dashed after he sustained an injury just before the Games. So he has a pretty good grip on dealing with crushing disappointment as well.

So when a 12-year-old Taylor Hall told his dad he wanted to play in the NHL, Steve was equipped to provide more than just fatherly advice. He had already been painstakingly building an outdoor rink for his son every year in Calgary, something that became a little more challenging once the family took up residence in Kingston. Even though Steve played college and pro football, he said he never really learned to be an athlete until he became a bobsledder. That was when he really learned the value of proper training and making the most of his reps, and he was able to pass that on to his son with the benefit of practical experience. “I was able to lend a hand,” Steve said. “but in the end, he was the guy who has executed the plan.”

The result is a 26-year-old player who was told to become a better practice player, and he did. Hall moved his off-season base to Toronto so he could work with renowned pro trainer Andy O’Brien. He’s comfortable now – at peace with himself and stable in his surroundings. And even through the difficult times, Hall always knew deep down how good he was. “I’ve never lost confidence in myself, I’ll say that,” he said. “I’ve never wavered in my self-confidence. You have to have that self-confidence and trust in your abilities, and when you don’t, then you’re screwed. I think self-confidence and self-belief is, almost to a fault, a good thing to have.”


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