Hall bolstering Hart Trophy stock by thriving in uncharted territory

Daren Millard, Doug MacLean and Elliotte Friedman discuss the debate of who is the top candidate to win the Hart Trophy.

NEWARK, N.J. – Taylor Hall has been out in the world. He’s seen some things.

Even on the night the Edmonton Oilers ended the Taylor/Tyler debate by selecting him first overall in the NHL draft, he spoke with an unusual amount of self-awareness and clarity: “Lots of guys have gone No. 1,” he said amid the euphoria of June 25, 2010. “They played in the NHL, but they haven’t really exceeded the expectations that they began [with]. So I have a lot of work to do. Sure, I went No. 1, but I still have a team to join, and a team to make better.”

Fast forward nearly eight years and finally the prophecy has been fulfilled. His team has changed, yes, but Hall has changed that team.

“You know, our team was picked to finish last,” says New Jersey Devils coach John Hynes.

Instead they are two points away from clinching a playoff spot with two games left to play. Throughout these treacherous last few weeks, unquestionably the most important of Hall’s career, the Devils have gone 9-2-1 while navigating their way through a minefield that included games with Nashville, Vegas, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.

As for Hall? He put up nine goals and 10 assists during that 12-game stretch. It’s lifted him to sixth in the NHL scoring race and thrust him prominently into the unbounded Hart Trophy discussion.

The next closest Devil to his 93 points is teenager Nico Hischier at 51. That means you could park the production of a useful third-line player between Hall and the second-best skater on the roster.

“He’s played with two rookies basically most of the year. One is the youngest player in the league (Hischier), another guy (Jesper Bratt) wasn’t supposed to be here,” said Hynes. “He’s driven a culture, he’s driven a team, he’s been extremely consistent, and you look at what he means to our team on and off the ice, I just don’t think there’s a comparable situation to what he’s been able to accomplish.”

The man makes a compelling case for including Hall on any ballot attempting to identify the player “adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Remember that these Devils finished 27th a season ago – Hall’s first after the trade from Edmonton. They added a couple young players, but also some unknowns and journeymen. There were zero external expectations. Then Hall opened the year with 16 points in 11 games and New Jersey went 9-2-0.

Look where they are now.

There have been approximately 1,200 total awards ballots cast during Hall’s first seven years in the NHL and never once has he received so much as a fifth-place vote for the Hart. Not a single mention. About as far as he’s willing to wade into the MVP debate now is acknowledging that he’s happy to hear his name included in it.

“It’d be cool to be nominated,” Hall told Sportsnet. “That would be a very humbling recognition.”

Where the 26-year-old places the most pride in a career-changing season is how he’s performed down the stretch. He’s emptied the tank and risen to the challenge.

“As the games have gotten harder, especially these last five or 10 games, it’s how I’ve played and how I’ve contributed,” he said. “That’s what I’d say I’m happy about this year.”

He is also thrilled about the team’s success, and about the possibility of making his debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs after more than 520 regular-season games. Many of those were meaningless. He played on Oilers teams that finished 30th, 29th, 24th, 28th, 28th and 29th.

That means Hall had never before faced a six-game road trip like the one the Devils embarked on last month – the one he points to as a defining moment in their season. New Jersey was on the bubble and visited six cities that will host playoff games this spring.

“A lot of people had looked at our schedule for the remaining games and said ‘OK, this is where the Devils team really falters. This is where they throw in the towel and they turn into the team that we thought they were,”’ said Hall. “To our credit, we went 4-2 on that road trip. We ended Nashville’s winning streak, we went into Vegas and beat them. You know we’re the only team to beat Pittsburgh twice at home this year.

“There’s a lot of things that we did as a group that no one really said we could do. We proved it to ourselves.”

Heading into Thursday’s game against Toronto at Prudential Center, he wasn’t getting ahead of himself. Any combination of two points earned by the Devils or lost by the Florida Panthers would clinch a playoff spot.

Hall points out that “stranger things have happened.” Still, he loves the nervous energy hanging in the dressing room before these games and getting to play under pressure.

“I’m not naïve. There’s Stanley Cup finals and there’s Game 7’s that guys have played in that are much more important than this, but this has been a lot of fun,” he said.

He’s proven something, too. Hall had an 80-point season at age 22, but the Oilers missed the playoffs by 24 points that year. You could argue that since winning back-to-back Memorial Cups, the highest-level hockey he’s played as a pro didn’t come in Edmonton, but in a couple of gold-medal performances with Team Canada at the world hockey championship.

While those are nice entries on a CV, it’s only a fraction of what’s expected of a No. 1 pick. Players with his background are supposed to be a factor in Hart Trophy voting while singlehandedly dragging teams up the mountain.

Inside a wayward organization, he drifted off course.

“I certainly had my hand in some of that,” Hall said. “I was a big-time player on some of those Edmonton teams and we didn’t do well. I’m culpable a little bit there, but I also knew that if I was given a chance to be one of the top guys on a team – on a skilled team, on a team that plays fast just like this – then I’d play well.”

Hall stuck with it and delivered a season no one saw coming. He’s shown that the Oilers were right to have faith in him all those years ago and wrong to send him out of town.

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