Quick Shifts: Devils’ ‘stern’ talk gives us a better Taylor Hall

New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall reacts to the news that Auston Matthews will not play in their matchup vs. the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
 
1. Taylor Hall‘s first season in New Jersey was the first year you could look at the first-overall pick and say he’d taken a step back.

The trade out of Edmonton ate at him. He was jealous. Said so himself. He was reeling from a breakup and needed time to grieve. He didn’t hide that either.

General manager Ray Shero had a long, stern talk with the superstar.

Head coach John Hynes flew to Toronto, where Hall devoted himself to training with NHLers, and spent a day just talking “lots of things” over.

They wanted Hall to dedicate more to his craft. They wanted more optimism to help drive the hockey team that does want him.

Hall responded. He has 19 points in 18 games and plays 19 minutes a night. Thursday night, in a tight 1-0 loss to the Maple Leafs, he did everything but score.

He double-shifted in overtime and skated a whopping 20:52, tops among all forwards. He fired seven shots, blocked two, and threw three hits. Everywhere you looked, there he was.

“I think the trade really did affect him, personally and professionally,” Hynes says. “There’s a difference now.

“He feels he’s really part of something, and it’s going in the right direction. This is his team now. These are his guys. And I think he has belief in the coaches, the general manager and the ownership. You’re starting to see the results of a guy who’s comfortable with his situation. The great thing for us is, he’s a hungry, hungry talented player.”

Hynes doesn’t make house calls every summer, but the Hall situation demanded a personal touch.

“Sometimes you go where a guy lives. It’s not New Jersey. It’s on his terms. You spend a few hours talking, and it helps,” Hynes says. “There’s certain situations where you want to get some things across: a little debrief of last year and some expectations we want to see from him going into the year.”

Fellow top-line winger Kyle Palmieri has noticed a dramatic shift in Hall’s confidence, ability and attitude.

“He’s more vocal in terms of stepping into a leadership role, without a doubt. He came from Edmonton, and his first year here he needed to get his feet wet. This year, you see it: He wants to go out there and win every night,” Palmieri told me Thursday night.

“He’s always been incredibly fast and incredibly dynamic, but he’s brought his game to another level in how much he demands that puck on his stick. As his linemate and a guy who gets to see him on a daily basis, it’s awesome to watch. He’s been carrying us offensively. On both sides of the puck, he’s one of the most solid players I’ve had a chance to play with. As long as he keeps going, he gives us a chance to win.”

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, Adam Larsson has dropped from a plus-21 defender to a minus-2. The Devils look like a playoff contender; the Oilers don’t.

Opinions can change as fast as sweaters.

2. Hall said it was difficult to quantify the importance of two-way centre Travis Zajac’s return to the Devils. (He made his season debut Thursday after missing camp plus 18 games recovering from pectoral surgery.)

“You know when he has the puck on his stick, the puck is going to get out, a play is going to be made. He’s so reliable that way,” Hall said.

Not only does Zajac lend leadership to a youthful room and bolster New Jersey’s 16th-place penalty kill, but Hall argues that the 32-year-old’s offensive game is sorely under-rated.

“I love playing with him,” Hall said.

(Adam Henrique went a step further: “He’s everything you want in a centreman.”)

Hall lit up when a reporter informed him Auston Matthews would not be playing Thursday.

“That’s great,” Hall said. “That’s huge for us that he’s not playing. It changes a lot.

“He’s such a gifted player [on] both sides of the puck,” Hall said.

The winger drew a flipped comparison to Zajac, saying that Matthews doesn’t get enough credit for his defence and Zajac doesn’t get enough props for his production.

“Matthews is underrated in the way that he can defend and push the puck up the ice.”

3. It’s been 12 years since NHL scoring has exceeded three goals per team per game. Granted, play tends to tighten as the games matter more and defences dial in to their systems, but we’re sitting at 3.04. Power plays (19.3% success rate) are humming at at 25-year high. Shots per team per game (31.7) haven’t been this bountiful since the league started counting shots, in 1983-84.

I asked commissioner Gary Bettman why scoring is up.

“Lots of reasons. We upped the slashing standard because we were concerned about injuries to fingers and wrists and hands, but that may have something to do with it. Players aren’t getting slashed, particularly when they’re going to the net, so they’re having more opportunity to score,” Bettman said.

“Maybe the face-off standard is also helping. We’re getting cleaner face-offs.”

4. The NHL is pleased with the steeper risk it gave this season to the coach’s challenge, a rule it felt was abused and overused in 2016-17.

“The number of challenges is down somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent for offsides. I think we’ve had 13 challenges through 250-some-odd games this year compared to 20ish last year. It’s being used less frequently, and we’re getting less complaints,” Bettman said.

“What’s happening is, coaches are really only challenging when it’s clear, which is the way the coach’s challenge was intended to be.”
 
5. Once a restricted free agent’s arbitration hearing is complete, the arbitrator has 48 hours or less to file his ruling.

Ritch Winter, the agent for Tomas Tatar, had a gut feeling that the arbitrator who heard his client’s case with the Red Wings this summer would file an early decision.

Indeed, the arbitrator planned to send his ruling to the league an hour earlier than he did, but he decided to print out and read over his paperwork one last time. He had some printer troubles (been there — am I right?!) that delayed the filing, which arrived a mere seven minutes after Winter and the Wings signed off on a four-year, $21.2 million deal.

The ruling was for one-year and $5 million.

“So Tomas, who’s not performing quite at the level he’d like this year, is pretty thankful that happened,” Winter says.

Tatar has seven points through 19 games.

6. When I interviewed Devan Dubnyk last week, the Minnesota Wild were in their nadir. Strangely, he didn’t seem the least bit concerned about his play and was confident it was only a matter of time before the ship turned. Even stranger, I believed him.

Goalies say stuff like that all the time, but sometimes it sounds like they’re trying to convince themselves, not the fans.
 
A few days later, Dubnyk reeled off three consecutive shutouts and broke his franchise record for longest shutout streak by an individual Wild goalie at 195:05, denying 106 shots in a row.

There’s a fun story that never made my piece.

Dubnyk says he and wife Jennifer got lucky with the timing of their second child, Parker, who was born in-season.

“We were scheduled to be in Arizona and California, and I hurt my groin the day before the road trip. First time in my life I’d missed a game due to injury. I stayed home, and two days into the trip Parker was born. Somebody was telling me I needed to be there, albeit in a painful way,” Dubnyk recalled.

The Dubnyks’ third child is due January.

“He’s scheduled for the bye week,” Dubnyk chuckled. “We’ll see if he slots in.”

Now that’s what I call planned parenthood. (Rim shot!)

7. As we round the season’s 20-game mark, we’ve already been blessed with a few trades — most recently the Mike Cammalleri–Jussi Jokinen deal, a good ol’ fashioned, change-of-atmosphere hockey swap.

Since Nikita Soshnikov was recalled by the Maple Leafs, there is justified speculation that Lou Lamoriello may eventually be urged to move a winger prior to deadline day. But the way UFAs-in-waiting James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have contributed in Auston Matthews’ absence, there is an increasing feeling around the team that they’ll be sticking for what Toronto hopes is a decent playoff run.

“We understand the core pieces of this team are going to stay together, which is great news. We’ve got what it takes in this dressing room,” Nazem Kadri says.

“Whether or not we do something [trade-wise], that’s out of the players’ control, but it’s nice to see familiar faces year in and year out. I’ve been around when every single person in the dressing room is walking on eggshells, so it’s nice to have that stability and security and know that most guys are going to be here [all year].”
 
8. The five teams hardest hit by injuries, in order: Anaheim, Buffalo, St. Louis, Boston, and Chicago.

That the Blues have remained atop the West despite their rash of lost man-games is remarkable. That the Ducks are hanging within one point of a playoff spot despite so many of their core players scuttling off to injured reserve makes them our safest bet to rally and get back in when healthy.

ManGamesLost.com does good work on the impact of absent players.

According to its metrics, the Ducks have already lost 2.2 standings points without Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Eaves, the top two most impactful skater injuries in the NHL.

Vegas has lost 5.92 standings points it would’ve gained had Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban been healthy.

 
9. Calgary Flames president Brian Burke was on fire this week in Toronto.

A few goodies that didn’t make my piece on him:

• The Flames’ three methods of evaluating talent, in order of importance: (1) eyeballs, (2) background checks, (3) analytics.

Burke said he speaks with a potential draftee’s siblings, billets and bantam coaches before picking him in the top three rounds.

“I could tell you what the Sedin twins’ grade point average was in high school the year we drafted them,” he said. “We pride ourselves on knowing the players we draft.”

• The emphasis on background checks stems, in part, from the scripted answers prospects give recruiting teams at the combine.

“It’s the same interview. You just change the kid,” Burke said.

Who’s your hero?

“My dad.”

Really? Who’s your role model growing up?

“My older brother.”

“It’s the same thing. They’re coached,” Burke said. “They are so polished at this point.”

• As for analytics? “You ignore innovation in our sport at your peril. If someone’s doing something that makes you better, you better goddamn well figure it out, or they’re gonna blow by you.”

• The funnest part of Burke’s job is amateur scouting, but the higher you rise as an executive, the less of it you do.

He waxed nostalgic about driving hours to a half-empty junior rink, sitting down in the bleachers alone and thinking, “Tonight, I’m gonna find a player. It’s Field of Dreams stuff, but it’s the coolest part of the job.”

• Burke figures his greatest skill is building smart staffs, but admits he’s never been a quick evaluator of hockey talent: “There’s guys in our league who can see a guy once. Bob Murray, I think, he watches a guy play one game and knows if he’s a player. Marc Bergevin, Rick Dudley [can do that]. I’ve got to see these guys seven times, and then I’m not sure.”

• That said, Burke has had a-ha moments. Around the turn of the century, Burke went to Ohio State University to scout R.J. Umberger for the Canucks, when another forward caught his eye instead.

“He hit about six people on his first shift,” Burke said of a young Ryan Kesler. He called his director of scouting to see where they’d slotted the rugged centre. Late second round.

“Move him up, right now,” Burke instructed. “You see a player and say, ‘Goddamnit, I gotta get this guy.’ ”

The Canucks stole Kesler at 23rd overall, and he’s been an elite Number 2 pivot ever since.

10. Meghan Chayka, sister of Coyotes GM John, works for Stathletes.

Like Burke, she appeared at the Prime Time Sports Management Conference. Her very business revolves around the “moneypuck” concept of using data to find undervalued players.

But Chayka said in one draft class, Stathletes’ top-rated player fell to the third round and, a couple years later, right out of hockey. Character and drive matters.

Another interesting point she made: Players have approached Stathletes for help in boosting their individual analytics as they enter a contract year because they know their agent can spin underlying numbers into dollars.

Chayka also said there are so many subtleties in hockey that she’s doubtful the sport will ever get to a one-number player stat in the spirit of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR): “I don’t think we’ll ever get there.”

11. Winter revealed that the Flames have been helping some of their players run their personal social media accounts. Hockey players generally are less active in blasting their personalities out there compared to, say, their basketball and baseball counterparts.

“They just don’t have any interest,” Winter said. “They’re team-oriented; they’re not individually oriented.”

12. No one puts more onus on a single duo of defencemen to kill its penalties than Toronto. Ron Hainsey (102:40) and Nikita Zaitsev (82:30) lead the NHL in PK ice time, and it isn’t even close. Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm (71:53) ranks third.

I’ll be shocked if the Maple Leafs don’t find a way to add another trusted stay-at-home D-man by March. Roman Polak hasn’t cut it, and the lineup is better off with Connor Carrick skating. Hainsey, who’s 36, and Zaitsev are at risk of burning out.

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