No one has been around this rebuild longer than Taylor Hall. Nor did anyone have higher expectations back on Oct. 7, 2010, when Edmonton beat Calgary 4-0 on the opening night of Hall’s career.
As a microcosm of what has happened in Edmonton since, consider this: Calgary has one top-10 finish in the West since that day, but the Oilers have gone 6-10-5 against the Flames. Translation: You’re never going to beat Anaheim and Chicago, if you can’t get past Calgary.
As an individual however, Hall has developed fabulously.
He is the top-scoring left-winger in the game over the past two seasons, and with his 23rd birthday still upcoming (Nov. 14), his prime years still await. He is the well-spoken, future captain in Edmonton — with a keen awareness of what hockey people think when the topic shifts to Alberta’s endless rebuild.
“It’s gotten to the point now, not just for myself but for every player on our team, if we’re going to get the recognition … our team has to be a better team than it’s been in the past,” Hall said in conversation with Sportsnet on Monday. “When we see players vault to levels that they weren’t at before, it’s usually because of their playoff performance. Or the way they were able to get their team into the playoffs.
“The same applies to me: In order for me to get the recognition I want from Edmonton fans and outside sources … it’s going to have to be because our team is good.”
He talks about his own responsibility to move the project along. To be a leader in turning the promise and potential into actual playoff games.
What Hall would never say, however, is this: He has undoubtedly held up his end of the bargain thus far. Hall is an elite NHL player, ranking eighth in both assists and points over the past two seasons — at age 21 and 22. He is a legit top-10 NHL producer on the ice, and off the ice he has matured into a measured spokesman in a situation that would have had others pulling their foot out of their mouth on a weekly basis. Especially after last season, a campaign that was supposed to mark a milepost for this rebuild but turned ugly almost immediately.
“When you look at the standings in November, and you see that the mountain in front of you is almost insurmountable, … it certainly takes a toll on you mentally,” Hall said of 2013-14. “It feels like this year expectations are tempered, realistic, and I feel like that’s a good thing for our team and for the new players on our team. (We) look forward to exceeding those expectations.”
Edmonton has gone from a darling pick last year to a team you won’t find in many top eight this pre-season. Meanwhile, GM Craig MacTavish has a lineup that can be looked at two ways: One, the defence, goaltending and depth forwards don’t rate in the West’s top eight in many people’s books; Two, each of those areas is vastly improved from the Oilers roster that opened the 2013-14 season.
There are six NHL defencemen here for the first time in years. Two NHL goalies, though it can be argued both are backups thus far in their careers. Actual size on the third and fourth lines, leaving the No. 2 centre as the last remaining, visibly obvious hole in Edmonton’s Opening Day roster.
“To be frank, this is easily the best team I’ve been on, on paper, coming into camp, since I’ve joined the Oilers,” Hall said. “That’s no disrespect to anyone who’s been here, but the mix we have right now makes a lot more sense than it did in years past. I think that’s pretty obvious.”
So, as the team keeps getting better (on paper, at least), so too must each individual player. Jordan Eberle needs to become a more consistent producer. Nail Yakupov must round his game out. Jeff Petry, who is nearly 27, must take a step forward. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has to make himself a greater challenge for the great centres of the Western Conference.
And Hall, the Oilers best player who hasn’t even reached the scouts’ milestone of 250 games in his career, must keep the bar rising in Edmonton.
“There are thing I want to improve about myself — body language, keeping my temper under control… I think I’ve got a good grasp on that,” said Hall, who began skating a month earlier than usual this summer, after skipping the World Championships last spring. “We’ve been an inconsistent team. (He looks forward to) being a consistent team, being a team that has an identity … and living up to that every night.
“I feel like … if we’re consistent with our work ethic, people are going to notice that.”
And perhaps the standings, like the player who fronts this Oilers rebuild, might reflect some true growth in Edmonton.