Spector: Hall’s Olympic hopes hinge on defence

Taylor Hall walks across the boarded up ice surface during a ball hockey training session at the Canadian national men's team orientation camp. (CP/Jeff McIntosh)

CALGARY — It is likely a long shot that a 21-year-old whose defensive game is best described as “a work in progress” will be named to Team Canada come December. Even if Taylor Hall was the second highest scoring left-winger in the National Hockey League last season.

Hall vows that he dedicates the coming season to becoming “a 200-foot player” right from the beginning of training camp, but what are the chances that a young player can make up that kind of ground in his game between now and Christmas?

“That’s primarily what I need to do,” Hall said on Monday, after spending Team Canada’s ball hockey workout on a line with Jordan Staal and University of Calgary fill-in Dylan Walchuk. “Just watching some of my games last year, any hockey player wants to mature, and I’m no different.

“For me, just being a 200-foot player is going to help me be in a position to be on this team, and I think that’s what they want to see.”

(We would advise to draw conclusions from Hall’s university linemate at your own peril. If Claude Giroux or Joe Thornton were here they would have been in that spot. And then what would you think about Hall’s placement?)

Hall was speaking about 10 minutes after he, teammate Jordan Eberle, and noted defensive task master Ken Hitchcock had stood near centre ice at Rink A at the Markin MacPhail Centre, holding a lengthy, post-workout discussion. Moments later, the two young Edmonton Oilers were singing from the same liner notes, a script that would have Brett Hull grimacing.

Hull heard the same things from Hitchcock back in their Dallas days, and Hitchcock’s brand of defensive responsibility was a tough slog for an offensively gifted player like Hull. In the end however, the coach was right: Hull had to become part of the system for the Stars to win their only Cup back in 1999.

“They want guys who are going to be reliable with the puck, just play a 200-foot game,” Eberle said of the Team Canada coaching staff. “If I can go to Edmonton and show the offence that I’m capable of, while keeping the puck out of my own net and being responsible in my own end, it’ll go a long way. Whether it’s the 13th forward, or whatever position they want you to take on, I’m willing to do that.”

So whether or not their two young stars end up in Sochi in February — or on a beach somewhere with the vast majority of NHL players — the Edmonton Oilers should benefit from this maturation process foisted upon Hall and Eberle. They have been, for some time now, one of the NHL’s more exciting teams. The problem is, much of that excitement has taken place around the Oilers goal, or inside of it, on too many nights.

Eberle is the more defensively adept of the two today. But he is also a year-and-a-half older. Hall is the more dynamic player overall, more of a power forward through the neutral zone to Eberle’s world class hands in traffic.

Both are tired of hearing about how good their Oilers could be one day, and see this as an opportunity to expedite that process.

“It’s probably the hardest lineup in the world to crack,” Hall said of Team Canada. “For a young player like myself … I can play any position. I’ll do whatever they want. If I’m in Sochi I’ll be happy. I’m willing to do anything to be part of this team.”

At the world championships last spring, Hall fell out of favour with head coach Lindy Ruff. He started on a line with Eberle, but that didn’t last. Hall’s ice time plummeted, as a defensive oriented (then) Eastern Conference coach got an eye full of Hall’s overall game, and did not like what he saw.

That coach is here as one of Mike Babcock’s assistants, and from Ruff’s new pulpit in Dallas he will have input on whether Hall and Eberle can handle the defensive responsibilities of playing against the world’s best.

Another young player, 24-year-old Logan Couture, has three years on Hall — including some impressive work in the 2013 playoffs. It is experience that Hall can’t compete with, and three important years of development that leaves Couture as a lock for this team (in our books, anyhow), and Hall a long shot.

“I think it was playing Vancouver that helped it. Obviously all around Canada, people saw those games,” Couture said of his fine all-around play in that first-round sweep of the Canucks. “If I made the team I’d play anywhere. Left, right or centre.”

Couture is one of the NHL’s top young centreman in San Jose, but almost certainly slots in a left wing here. That, of course, is the position that Hall is trying out for.

“Taylor’s a very good player though,” Couture said. “It would be tougher, I guess, if you can only play one position.”

Hall finished ninth in NHL scoring last season with 50 points in 45 games, at the ripe old age of 21. He is already elite offensively, and give the kid credit — he vows to improve the defensive end of his game.

“I have to be a 200-foot player, like they want me to be,” he said. “They’re going take the best players, and my job is to be one of them.”

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