Taylor Hall‘s former junior hockey team, the Windsor Spitfires, are on their way to the Mastercard Memorial Cup Final after a perfect 3-0 round-robin record. It’s the first time Windsor, this year’s host, is returning the the major junior championship since 2010. That season, Hall led the team to its second consecutive Memorial Cup Championship.
After that win, Hall was drafted first overall in the 2010 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers (while teammate Cam Fowler went 12th overall to Anaheim). Hall went from a CHL powerhouse to an Oilers team that had missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons and just bottomed out at 62 points.
It wasn’t about to get any better either. Hall was the first of three consecutive first-overall picks made by the Oilers as they struggled to move from a rebuilding team to one the league took seriously — a transition that can often be easier planned than executed.
“That was frustrating when in the dressing room and the coaches and our game plan is to try and win games, but sometimes the ultimate plan really isn’t to do that at some points, especially early in my career there,” Hall said on Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Starting Lineup Thursday. “I think that’s hard on a young player. I think the biggest thing for development in young players is seeing how to win games and maybe that could have been done more in Edmonton early on, but I’m not really sure.”
Hall spent the first six years of his career with the Oilers, with his best year coming in 2013-14 when he scored 27 goals and 80 points. But the team never came particularly close to making the playoffs, only finishing out of the basement of their division twice.
Edmonton finally got in this season, the first one after trading Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Not only that, they won a round against the defending Western Conference champions and took the Anaheim Ducks to Game 7 before being eliminated.
Hall’s Devils, meanwhile, finished last in the Eastern Conference.
“I wouldn’t say I wanted them to lose, but it was nice to finally see them maybe get eliminated,” Hall said of watching his former team in the playoffs. “It’s a tough thing to describe to people. I think there’s been enough time that’s passed since the trade happened that you finally just kind of… it is what it is now. I’m a Devil and I’m excited to see what we can do next season.”
Although New Jersey had the fourth-best odds at the draft lottery, they won the first-overall pick and will likely take either Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier on June 23.
It will be an interesting off-season for every team with the NHL Expansion Draft throwing a wild card into the usual summer transaction period.
The Devils’ off-season particularly presents them with a few opportunities to take steps back toward the playoffs, as on top of holding the No. 1 pick, Ilya Kovalchuk reportedly wants back in the NHL. Since he was under contract with New Jersey when he left for the KHL in 2013, the Devils still own his rights. They could either sign him, or trade him to a team closer to contending — but either way New Jersey is picking up a free asset if he returns.
“From what I’m hearing I’m not sure if he wants to be in New Jersey or not, but I think along with the No. 1 overall pick either playing with Kovalchuk or getting an asset for him and then this summer is just crazy with the expansion draft, so there’s a lot of opportunity for us to grow and acquire some skill and acquire some needs that we gotta have,” Hall said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to. I think (general manager) Ray Shero has a great plan and what we need to do and what we need to get in place here. It’s a really good summer to take care of that because we have a ton of cap space and a young team that looks pretty promising.”
If we’re being honest, the Devils are probably still at least a couple years away from getting back to the post-season, considering the competition we saw in the Metropolitan Division this season. Heck, the Philadelphia Flyers missed the playoffs and finished with 18 more points than the Devils — and then bucked the odds to nab the second-overall pick at the draft.
But this summer is unique in that it’s expected to have more player movement than any other since the salary cap was introduced in 2005. Back then, teams were forced into all kinds of manoeuvring to work into the new system. It probably won’t be as drastic as that summer, but the addition of a 31st team is the most significant landscape shift the NHL has experienced since.
To hear Hall talk about playing through an extended rebuild in Edmonton, it’s vitally important for the Devils to take steps forward rather than sit content with high draft picks for a few years.
In the meantime, Hall will be heading to where it all started this weekend. He’ll be in Windsor for the Mastercard Memorial Cup Final between his Spitfires and either the QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs, or the OHL champion Erie Otters. And although he didn’t see any of the round-robin games, the superstitious Hall isn’t worried about jinxing the team he’s rooting for.
“I’ll take my chances,” he said. “I don’t think I want to miss this one.”