Taylor Hall finally got his first taste of the NHL playoffs this year - and now he’s hungry for more. The Hart Trophy winner pulled the New Jersey Devils into the post-season and reflecting at the NHLPA's charity golf classic, he’s ready for the next mission.
“Once the season’s done you have time to look back,” Hall said. “It was definitely a successful season, but at the same time, I watched playoff hockey for a month and a half before the Cup was handed out. So we’re a long way from where we want to be.”
Hall won the Hart on the strength of a sizzling campaign that saw him rack up 93 points, producing a gulf of 41 points between himself and linemate Nico Hischier, who finished second on the Devils in scoring with 52 points. Hall also led the team in playoff scoring, though New Jersey fell to Tampa Bay in five games. Still, for a player who suffered through a ton of dysfunction in Edmonton before getting traded just as Connor McDavid was putting his stamp on the Oilers, Hall was pleased to finally play an 83rd game.
“It’s hard to get out of the basement, it really is,” he said. “The hardest step is going from making the playoffs to being a team that can challenge for the Cup. I’m really looking forward to doing that.”
How can New Jersey do that? Well, when Hall was watching the latter rounds of the playoffs on TV, he picked up some ideas on what makes a contender.
“They had a lot of depth,” he said. “Teams like the Capitals, their top guys are doing their thing and playing well, but it’s the Devante Smith-Pellys, the Jay Beagles - those guys make the difference as a series goes on. Hopefully as we grow as a team, we can add those kind of guys. That’s part of evolving as a team, getting guys used to what they have to do, getting used to their roles.”
The Devils still have some building to do. Coach John Hynes has proven to be a very effective communicator, while Hall’s MVP performance naturally went a long way. But this is a team that got ahead of its own rebuild by unexpectedly making the playoffs this past season. Some of those depth guys, such as Michael Grabner and Brian Gibbons, left via free agency this summer. So far, there haven’t really been any veteran replacements, but there is youth to look for.
Under GM Ray Shero, the Devils drafted 20 players between 2016 and 2017. Power forward Joey Anderson will look to make noise in his first pro season after leaving the University of Minnesota-Duluth as an NCAA champion, while Jesper Bratt will try to build off his successful rookie season, which featured a surprisingly hot start for a player that wasn’t even expected to make the team.
But Hischier is the main event when it comes to youth. After dazzling with QMJHL Halifax and Switzerland at the world juniors, he arrived as advertised in New Jersey, playing as Hall’s center and justifying his claim as the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft.
“The biggest impact on my season was playing with him all year long,” Hall said. “If he played in a bigger market, he’d have a lot more recognition and certainly a lot more Calder votes than he got. He had 50 points as a center as an 18-year-old and we played against top lines every night. I’m proud to play on a line with him and I’m really looking forward to seeing his evolution and how he can improve next year.”
Hall has experienced his own evolution, too. When he played for the Oilers, he was a speed demon that didn’t seem to have a down gear. That may sound great, but it often put him in bad situations on the ice and Hall would take hard hits at high speeds from opponents he didn’t see coming. Now that he’s a veteran, he sees the folly of youth.
“My game is a lot more relaxed,” he said. “That’s just part of growing up. Maybe that frustration I had the first few years in Edmonton, I don’t feel that anymore.”
Success will do that, and Hall has certainly earned the respite.