EDMONTON — Taylor Hall returned to Edmonton on Wednesday to a rink he never played in as he prepared to face an Oilers team that embraced him in the down years only to dump him to get better.
Hall said the initial frustration, and the bitterness, is fading.
“A lot of guys want to be traded. A lot of guys are anxious to leave their teams. I wasn’t,” Hall said after he and the other New Jersey Devils finished practice at Rogers Place.
“(But) in saying that. I’m really enjoying my time in Jersey. They’ve made me one of their key guys and it’s on me to produce and play well, and I enjoy that pressure.”
Thursday night’s game between the Oilers and Devils will be Hall’s second meeting with his former team since he was swapped for defenceman Adam Larsson in a blockbuster trade last June 29. The Devils lost 2-1 last Saturday to the Oilers in New Jersey.
It will be his first game as a visitor in Edmonton, however, and his first in the Oilers’ new downtown arena.
Hall said the new arena makes it easier to come back, as the old Rexall Place had six years of memories.
“It’s not like we had Stanley Cup parades here in Edmonton. There was a lot of losing, a lot of dark times. But through all those dark times I really enjoyed my time here,” he said.
“I always enjoyed playing in front of fans in a sold-out building every night. That was a great experience to start my career.”
For five of his six seasons, Hall was the linchpin forward and marquee draw for the Oilers.
He was drafted first overall in 2010 and there was much ballyhoo. Fans bought stuffed Taylor Hall dolls. His 1,000-watt smile was on billboards and marketing campaigns. Retired Oiler great Kevin Lowe gave his blessing to un-retire his No. 4 jersey for Hall to wear.
He scored goals in bunches — 132 in six seasons — while racking up a medical chart full of injuries, including a gruesome skate blade to the scalp during pre-game warmups in 2012.
But the bottom line was the Oilers have missed the playoffs every year since 2006, due mainly to a minor league blue-line corps.
A big trade was needed. The Devils had defence and no offence and the Oilers had the reverse, so Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger.
It did not go over well.
Fans on sports call-in shows ripped Chiarelli as a rube, fleeced into giving up a franchise player for a strong defenceman but a nonetheless lower-ranked commodity.
The vitriol on Chiarelli has evaporated to some degree now that the Oilers, led by a revamped defensive corps and the strong play of goaltender Cam Talbot, sit 10th in the NHL and are in the thick of the fight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Larsson has proven to be as advertised, stabilizing the blue line and getting pucks up to blazing forwards like Connor McDavid.
“Larsson’s a rock back there. He’s been so good defensively for us. He brings it every night,” said McDavid.
Head coach Todd McLellan said the Hall trade was part of a larger transformation starting with Talbot but extending out to all positions.
The Oilers have allowed 2.67 goals per game, putting them 16th in the NHL. Talbot has 20 wins and a .917 save percentage.
“We’re playing better as a group defensively,” said McLellan.
The Devils, meanwhile, now live where the Oilers used to call home, languishing 27th overall in the 30-team league.
Hall, despite missing 10 games with a knee injury, is tied for the team scoring lead with nine goals and 25 points.
Oilers forward Jordan Eberle came up with Hall and they shared living accommodations for awhile.
“For him individually I think it will be kind of a weird night for him,” said Eberle. “He’s a good player. It’s tough to see him go but I think we’re better as a team, and he’s doing well there (in New Jersey).
“In hockey there’s a lot of that. Guys get traded. You lose friends. But it’s a business. It’s part of the game.”