On Wednesday, the New Jersey Devils addressed a decade-long franchise need, stealing one of the NHL’s five best even-strength scorers in exchange for a talented but one-dimensional defensive specialist.
It’s hard to overstate how important this Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson deal is for the Devils, who were one of the worst teams in the league at five-on-five in 2015-16. They lost the battle for puck possession, ranking 29th overall with a 46.2 percent Corsi rating. They struggled mightily to score, averaging just 1.67 goals per hour. Not only were they the least potent offence in the league, they were one of just six teams to score less than 2.0 goals per hour.
The addition of Hall will do much to change that.
Hall’s possession numbers have bounced around a little over the years, but last season he ranked second on a bad Oilers team with a 51.7 percent Corsi rating. He was the driver of Edmonton’s best out-shooting line, mostly while playing alongside journeyman winger Teddy Purcell and sophomore centre Leon Draisaitl.
Perhaps more importantly for offence-starved New Jersey, Hall is an elite offensive contributor. He hasn’t had a lot of success on a mediocre Edmonton power play, which is the main reason why he only ranks 12th among NHL forwards in points per game since the 2012 lockout. At even-strength, however, he scores as well as the best players in the game:
|Top 10 NHL forwards, 2012-16, by 5-on-5 scoring rate|
The really incredible thing, unlike most of the players on that chart, is that Hall is just entering the most productive seasons of his career. He’s 24 years old, and most studies have found that scoring rates for forwards peak between age 24 and 26.
Prior to being hired by the Carolina Hurricanes, stats guru Eric Tulsky showed that after peaking, forwards retain about 90 per cent of their offence through age 29, meaning that the Devils can look forward to a half-decade of elite production from Hall before his game even really starts to slip.
Better still, Hall wasn’t riding anyone’s coattails in Edmonton. Over the four-year span noted above, he performed better when played with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, but he still managed to score 2.38 and 2.31 points/hour, respectively, when lined up next to lesser lights. In contrast, Eberle scored 1.88 points/hour away from Hall and Nugent-Hopkins just 1.49 points/hour.
The number of players who can justifiably be dealt in a one-for-one trade for Hall is not particularly large, and Adam Larsson is not one of them. Like Hall, he addresses need in that the Oilers had a glaring positional deficit on the right side of their blue line. Unlike Hall, there’s little evidence in his career to date to suggest that he’s going to move the needle for the franchise.
Offensively, there’s nothing much going for Larsson other than hope. Over the last four years he ranks 112th among NHL defencemen by even-strength points/hour and he hasn’t recorded so much as a single power-play point in spot duty on the man advantage. There’s faint hope that his scoring can blossom outside of New Jersey’s restrictive system and that, if given a real chance on the power play, he can produce something there. But this is definitively not the strength of his game.
Unfortunately, it’s also fair to wonder about Larsson’s work on the defensive side of the puck.
One of the causes for concern is New Jersey’s traditional emphasis on defence, a long-standing problem when projecting the performance of their players in other markets. Another is that Larsson has spent the last six years welded to the hip of Andy Greene, a brilliant two-way defender who has a strong case as the NHL’s most underrated talent.
Back in 2013-14, Greene spent his last year on a very successful tough-minutes pairing with Mark Fayne, who was subsequently signed by the Oilers as a free agent. Over the last two seasons, he has spent significant time with two partners: Larsson and Damon Severson. His results next to those two players make for a fascinating study in light of Wednesday’s trade:
|5v5 metrics when playing with Andy Greene|
It’s hard to look at those numbers and not come away with at least a vague feeling that Edmonton may have managed to turn Hall into New Jersey’s second-best right-shot defenceman.
The primary difference between a Greene/Severson and Greene/Larsson tandem the last two years has been in the shot-generation department. Both pairs have taken on tough minutes—not just quality of competition, but a very low ratio of shifts starting in the offensive:defensive zone)—and both have done a decent job of limiting shot attempts against.
The trouble is that with Larsson out there, the Devils have been utterly unable to generate offence. If we confine our focus to 2014-15, when Greene split time almost evenly with his two partners, New Jersey had a five-shot attempt/hour bump with Severson over Larsson. If we look at our much smaller sample in 2015-16, the gap is even wider.
The big item in Larsson’s favour this past season is that the Devils did a very nice job of outscoring opponents when he was on the ice. Mostly, though, that seems to be a result of Cory Schneider. Over the last two seasons, Larsson’s on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5 was 0.935 and 0.946, respectively.
That kind of goaltending will make any defenceman look good, and it’s hard to really pin down Larsson as the cause of it when, over the same two-year span, fringe NHLers Seth Helgeson (0.949 save percentage) and Mark Fraser (0.938 save percentage) are benefiting from the same effect.
Larsson does play extremely tough minutes, but that only goes so far. It’s questionable whether he’s really a top-pair defenceman, making him an uncommonly poor return for a player of Hall’s caliber.