Taylor Hall belonged to an Edmonton Oilers core often derided among hockey pundits for its lack of on-ice maturity. The group, which included first overall picks Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, dazzled with offensive skill but was criticized for a lack of defensive awareness, particularly Hall and Yakupov. They were paid like star players and honored as celebrities in Edmonton despite never making the playoffs.
But a conversation with Hall after his trade to the New Jersey Devils, however, bursts that bubble of supposed entitlement. He addressed a group of reporters in a scrum at BioSteel's 2016 Pro Hockey Camp Tuesday in Toronto, and the one word he evoked: maturity. He spoke with a world-weariness, choosing frank answers to questions instead of cliches.
Was the stunning 1-for-1 trade sending left winger Hall to the Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson "just part of the game"? Not for Hall. He took it personally. It did not roll off his back by any means. He made that clear when one reporter asked him if the trade felt like breaking up with a lover.
"Yeah, in the sense that, in a breakup, you just try to forget about it as quick as you can, right?" Hall said. "And that's what I'm trying to do. It's not easy."
Hall drew a laugh from the crowd at BioSteel when he admitted the trade torpedoed all his summer plans. He had to scramble to sell his house in Edmonton. He didn't want to face his family and friends for the first week or 10 days, he said, but he eventually adjusted and talked about the trade with them. By the end of the summer he felt normal again. He even took in the final Tragically Hip concert last weekend in his native Kingston, Ont.
Did he receive a flood of welcoming texts from Devils personnel after the trade? Sure, from the likes of GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes. But Hall didn't offer the typical flowery appreciation. He wasn't looking for a hand holder.
“I’m 24 years old now," he said. "I’m not an 18-year-old kid that’s just being drafted to a team. A lot of the onus is on me to get in there and get used to things as quickly as possible. Certainly there are some guys on that team that have been around a long time, but I’ve played six years now, so I hope I can take on a bit of a leadership role and do my part there.”
Hall isn't a New Jersey expert, either, and doesn't pretend to be. When his Oilers played a road game there last season, Hall was surprised that the Prudential Center crowd "felt like a traditional hockey market." The fans were louder than he expected. It was Martin Brodeur's jersey retirement night, which made the game memorable, and Hall left thinking the Devils were a "first-class organization."
After he found himself an apartment earlier this month, he admitted he's most excited about New Jersey's proximity to New York City. He's not saying exactly what the Devils fans might want to hear. He's talking up the rival city across the Hudson River. And that's refreshing. A player who says what he's really thinking, not what he's supposed to say, can be perceived two ways. In Hall's case, this is no loose cannon running off his mouth. It's a former rookie speaking like a veteran who no longer feels the need to spew canned, tidy quotes.
But being such a good articulator only makes you a star if you're a keynote conference speaker. In the NHL, it's merely an endearing personality trait, useful in the dressing room. What matters is whether Hall can translate this maturity into his game with the Devils. Earlier last season, Hall told me Oilers coach Todd McLellan helped advance his defensive game, so maybe Hall is ready to show his most complete self. And, honestly, he's not nearly as weak defensively as many perceive him to be. He's actually an extremely positive possession driver and a dominant offensive player. He's not a defensive forward in the traditional sense, but he's excellent at pushing shot attempts toward the other team's goal, a forward version of what Erik Karlsson does on 'D' in Ottawa.
However we interpret Hall's defensive play, the Devils may not care. They were the NHL's lowest-scoring team in 2015-16, so they could simply unleash Hall and tailor their system to maximize his speed and net-driving skills. His range of outcomes in for 2016-17 is wide. Might he post career-worst numbers playing in arguably the NHL's least-talented lineup top to bottom? Will he break even? Or will he reach a new summit playing away from the distraction of an overbearing Canadian hockey market?
Whatever Hall does, he'll do it with one eye on his old team. He can't help but admit it. Honesty is his M.O.
"Once the regular season starts and you start seeing Edmonton piling up wins or whatever they might do, it’s going to be a little bit weird," he said. "But the main thing is to focus on what’s happening on my team, control what I can control, and that’s my play on the ice.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin