Nobody expected it to play out quite like this, right?
Sure, when Taylor Hall signed a surprising one-year, $8-million contract last off-season to play for the Buffalo Sabres, who had missed nine straight post-seasons, the range of outcomes for his 2020-21 season was wide. Maybe Hall would return to his 2017-18 Hart Trophy form, making magic with Jack Eichel and helping Buffalo end its drought while he hammered out a long-term extension. Or maybe the Sabres would stay bad and Hall would become a coveted rental commodity, shipped out for a package of prospects and a first-round pick, as he was last season when the New Jersey Devils sent him to Arizona.
Instead, we have…the Sabres being far worse than any of us imagined, enduring the longest winless streak of the salary-cap era and about to tie the NHL record with a 10th consecutive playoff miss. Meanwhile, Hall has labored through a terrible season, managing just two goals in 37 games. He hasn’t been as bad as his surface numbers look (an interesting thread here from Rachel Doerrie sheds light), as he’s been unbelievably unlucky, scoring on just 2.3 percent of his shots. But there’s no denying this is Hall’s worst season. He’s generating the fewest shots and scoring chances of his career per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and his second-fewest primary assists per 60.
Hall is thus an extremely difficult player to appraise approaching the April-12 trade deadline. Still just 29, he possesses the game-breaking raw talent to put a contending team over the top. But it’s still tough to imagine a team paying full value for someone with two goals. Also complicating matters: Hall’s $8-million AAV. During this flat-cap season, it’s a large number for teams to inherit, and Buffalo may have to eat as much as half the cap hit for it to work. The cap hit can also be chopped up if a third-party team participates in a deal.
Still, few if any available forwards on the block at the moment have Hall’s upside, so there will be competing bids for him, and that means it’s still possible Sabres GM Kevyn Adams gets a return comparable to what New Jersey got last season.
Who are best fits for Hall’s services? Consider these five teams, presented alphabetically. Some constitute a suggestion based on hockey fit, and some are already reported to be chasing Hall.
The Hurricanes qualify as top-tier Stanley Cup contenders, owning the NHL’s second-best points percentage at .724. Their calling card is team defense above all. They allow the fourth-fewest goals per game and sit top 10 in most defense-oriented metrics, from penalty killing to shot attempts and scoring chances allowed per 60 at 5-on-5. They’ve been merely good rather than great offensively, however, sitting 12th in goals per game despite boasting the league’s No. 1 power play and ranking near the top of the league in scoring chances per 60 at 5-on-5. Might Hall give them the little push they need to become an elite team at both ends of the ice? They’re close already. With Teuvo Teravainen’s concussion problems still keeping him out of the lineup, the Canes could use a bona fide top-six forward as insurance. With James Reimer, Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek creating a logjam in net, perhaps GM Don Waddell would consider dealing Reimer or Mrazek to make it more financially feasible to pursue an upgrade such as hall.
The Oilers are arguably most dangerous when splitting centers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl onto two separate lines rather than loading up with Draisaitl on McDavid’s left wing. Acquiring Hall would allow coach Dave Tippett to pair each center with one of Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to create two deadly duos. The Oilers could become a true Stanley Cup threat if GM Ken Holland renders the roster a bit less top heavy. A report earlier this week suggested the Oilers “are in on” Hall already. Could an Edmonton homecoming be in the cards?
The Panthers check more boxes than any other team when it comes to a hospitable Hall environment. They rank among the top Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL at the moment. They need a true No. 2 left winger behind Jonathan Huberdeau rather than mixing and matching the likes of Mason Marchment, Anthony Duclair and Frank Vatrano. In matchup master Joel Quenneville, they have a legendary coach who could probably get the most out of Hall. Even though their biggest need is obviously on the right side of their blueline after Aaron Ekblad’s heartbreaking leg injury, the Panthers can afford to acquire Hall plus a defense upgrade given the cap savings from placing Ekblad on LTIR. There may be no contender with more financial flexibility at the moment.
The Canadiens wouldn’t have appeared on a list like this even two days ago. Brendan Gallagher’s broken thumb changed that. Not only does his multi-week injury create a need for veteran scoring in Montreal’s top six, but placing him on LTIR also could give GM Marc Bergevin a loophole in which he holds Gallagher out until the post-season begins and his cap hit no longer matters. Hall plays the opposite wing, but the Habs have enough forwards who can play either side that coach Dominique Ducharme could figure out a fit.
New York Islanders
Not only did Anders Lee’s season-ending injury create a huge hole in the Isles’ first-line left winger spot, but it also landed Lee on LTIR, giving GM Lou Lamoriello, the master cap manipulator, wiggle room to pursue another upgrade. Based on team need and financial viability, the Isles are as good a fit as any team. They badly need to replace Lee’s scoring touch. They’re an exemplary defensive club under coach Barry Trotz, averaging the fewest high-danger chances against at 5-on-5, but they barely crack the top half of the league in total offense, largely because they own one of the weaker power plays of any team currently in a playoff spot. Hall would make them more dynamic.
OTHER HALL SUITORS TO WATCH: Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs