By Ryan Dixon in New Jersey
By Ryan Dixon in New Jersey
Leading the upstart New Jersey Devils to the playoffs after a surprise MVP-calibre season, it’s safe to say Taylor Hall has settled in south of the border.

Every player knows the value of a quick peek, especially one who produces like Taylor Hall. At the moment, Hall is standing just inside the part of the New Jersey Devils’ dressing room that’s a players-only sanctuary. On the other side of large double doors is the zone where people with microphones and cameras kick about, hoping to chat about the story of the day. Hall definitely qualifies as that on this early March morning thanks to a 25-game point streak that he’ll put on the line tonight versus the Montreal Canadiens. (The league counts it as 18 games because Hall missed three outings with an injured thumb, but the bottom line is he’s snagged a point the past 25 times he put on skates.) Beyond his man-of-the-moment status, though, there’s also an underlying curiosity about Hall and his ongoing adjustment to a place and team he initially didn’t seem to want any part of.

Perhaps sensing a swollen media presence with a Canadian team on the schedule, Hall hangs back just a minute, peeking between the swinging doors before stepping through and walking to his stall. Wearing a red-on-red Devils hat and a sweat-soaked shirt, he clasps his hands behind his back and prepares to cover familiar ground.

Many of the questions centre on the streak. All he cares about, Hall says, is that when the run inevitably ends, it happens in a game where he still creates a bunch of chances. Hall negotiates queries about the Edmonton chapter of his life with relative ease, too, though he does wait an extra beat before saying that while he feels he’s improved as a player in Jersey, no, he’s not a fundamentally different one. While there’s probably justification for a longer conversation on that second point, there is no debating the fact Hall has sunk into his surroundings in Year 2 as a Devil. “I’m a big comfort person,” he says. “Last year — I wouldn’t say [it was] a whirlwind — but it was a lot and it was a big change. Right away, [this year] at training camp, I felt a lot more comfortable with my surroundings, with my coaching staff, with the group around me. That’s a good feeling for a personality like [mine].”

“Every time he’s got the puck, he’s speeding up. I think there’s only a few NHLers who can really do that, and he’s one of them.”

Hall’s makeup — more likely to hang back at first than thrust himself into a social mix, but also confident in a way some misinterpret as arrogant — leaves him vulnerable to being misunderstood. Those who forge bonds off a single backslap will always be more natural and immediate candidates for the “good guy” label. Some people, though, take more time to warm up. But no matter how long it took or the path needed to get there, Hall is hot as they come now. And if this season started with more positive vibes than last, just imagine how the ultra-competitive left winger and seriously-in-the-mix Hart Trophy candidate will feel when, in a matter of days, he plays his first Stanley Cup Playoffs contest.

Few, if any, observers had the rebuilding Devils pegged for a post-season spot eight months ago, but a confluence of factors has resulted in happy times in the Garden State. As it stands, Hall is leading a Devils revitalization that has legs as strong as his own. New Jersey is a well-coached, fast club that has likely been as good for Hall as he’s been for it. The only remaining question is, exactly how far can the two go together?

Traded for defenceman Adam Larsson in 2016, Hall's Hart Trophy-calibre play this season has Oilers fans in agony.

It’s easy to assume that watching Hall this season triggers a certain agony for Oilers fans. On June 29 of 2016, Hall was sent to the Devils in a one-for-one deal that returned six-foot-three, right-shot defenceman Adam Larsson. Swapping a premier talent for a rearguard who’d never topped 24 points in a season was predictably met with some exploding heads in Northern Alberta. Still, it’s not as though Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli woke up that day, was suddenly struck by the idea of trading one of most naturally gifted wingers in the league, and then consummated a deal with whomever he could get on the phone before his eggs got cold. Hall was being shopped for months before New Jersey GM Ray Shero snagged him in a tenure-defining move. And if you think Hall’s success with the Devils is an indictment of Chiarelli, it’s also at least a lower-case knock on the handful of other GMs who could have added Hall — if not for the discount price of a defensive defenseman, then at the least for a package that would still look very appetizing today.

“Everyone who gets traded thinks, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ No. It’s just the way the game is.”

The way Hall plays, there are times you’d be tempted to give up half your team for 2010’s first-overall pick, whose 93 points in 76 games this year was a staggering 41 more than the second-best scoring Devil, Hall’s rookie centre Nico Hischier. Among forwards, Hall finished as one of the NHL’s best handful of takeaway artists and the only Jersey player to end with a superior relative Corsi rating was defenceman Will Butcher, who had more offensive zone starts than anybody on the team. The manner in which Hall blends speed and sturdiness into one terrorizing package is something to behold. A member of an opposing coaching staff says people don’t understand how strong on the puck Hall is. If you gave every NHLer a beige, numberless jersey and had them burn laps, the only child of Steve Hall and Kim Strba would be a cinch to pick out from the crowd thanks to his signature broad-based stride. The truly can’t-miss aspect to his game, though, is the way No. 9 surges whenever he touches the frozen rubber, as if mere contact with it sends a signal to his feet. “Every time he’s got the puck, he’s not trying to slow down to make a play, he’s speeding up,” says teammate Travis Zajac. “I think there’s only a few [NHLers] who can really do that, and he’s one of them.”

The vapour trail has long been a Taylor hallmark, but new offensive dimensions are emerging in New Jersey, too. When the Canadiens came to town, Hall — who self-identifies as a playmaker — had an even 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points on his 25-game streak. The 3.7 shots he averaged per outing this season represent the highest total of his eight-year career, and his 39 goals were 12 better than his previous high. “Last year, he might have passed up a couple opportunities to shoot,” says Kyle Palmeiri, a frequent linemate of Hall’s in Jersey. “He’s got a great shot, he’s got a great release and he’s very accurate.”

That description is of a player who — though preposterously gifted — really had to push himself to bury the puck this frequently at the highest level. “I’m not a natural goal-scorer; goal-scoring is something that I really had to learn how to do at this pace,” Hall insists. “With a little luck on your side, you look a bit better than you might have in the past.”

Hall may be breaking new ground as a truly elite NHL goal-producer, but it’s never been difficult to appreciate his ability. Like most standout forwards, he entered the Ontario Hockey League as a centre after the Windsor Spitfires selected him second overall behind Ryan O’Reilly in the 2007 OHL Priority Draft. Hall began the season in the middle of the team’s fourth line, but his play quickly demanded an increased role and that meant a move to the flank, where the team could slot him higher in the lineup. “We put him on left wing just to get him more ice,” says Spits GM Warren Rychel.

After the death of team captain Mickey Renaud in 2008, Hall and his Windsor Spitfires teammates honoured his memory the best way they knew how — winning back-to-back Memorial Cups.

It wasn’t just Hall’s excellence that stood out, though. His competitive spirit really spoke to Rychel, a once-upon-a-time ruffian who carved out an NHL career by confronting all comers. That was never going to be Hall’s calling, but Rychel is quick to point out the OHL was a different circuit 10 years ago, when muscle heads had more latitude to dim stars through intimidation. Hall was unflinching, which is why Rychel estimates he recovered about 80 per cent of the 50-50 pucks he chased around all parts of the ice, including unforgiving corners where defenceman three or four years his senior lurked. “He’s tough as f—,” says Rychel. “He got killed by guys in our league who were 19; he was 165, 170 pounds.”

Major junior is a formative time for most of the young men who pass through the Canadian Hockey League, but that’s especially true of Hall and his Spitfire teammates because of an event that put the teenagers face-to-face with life’s cruelest reality. Before winning back-to-back Memorial Cup titles in 2009 and ’10, Windsor’s players dealt with an unimaginable loss when their captain, Mickey Renaud, died suddenly from an undetected heart condition in February 2008. Among Renaud’s numerous gifts was an easy spirit and ability to instantly connect with a cross-section of people, something Hall very much appreciated. “I wish I had it more in me, but he could just relate to anyone,” Hall told me last year. “He was so nice to me right away. I was an awkward, 15-year-old pimple-faced kid and he made me feel welcomed.”

Hall and his teammates repaid Renaud the only way they knew how: by going out and getting the wins he’d given so much of himself in pursuit of. The Windsor teams that won consecutive national titles were loaded with talent — Ryan Ellis, Adam Henrique and Cam Fowler quickly come to mind — but it was Hall who was named most valuable player at both Memorial Cups and who played the lead role in turning Windsor from a forgotten outpost to one of the CHL’s most consistently brilliant organizations.

Rychel lays it bare: “He changed our franchise.”

Hall has stepped up the defensive side of his game this year, but it's the offensive fireworks he demonstrated during his 26-game point streak that have Devils fans chanting 'M-V-P!'

Acquiring Hall always had the potential to be a major turning point for a Devils team looking to buff some faded shine back into a squad that won three titles and made five trips to the Final between 1995 and 2012. That said, any hopes for instant results were gravely misguided. For starters, the Devils — who haven’t seen a playoff game since losing the 2012 Final to L.A. — were only one year into Shero’s restoration plan when Hall landed, and no single player was going to solve all the team’s problems. Beyond that, Hall did little to disguise the fact he was stung by the move from Edmonton. “Everyone thinks, ‘Did I do something wrong?’” says Rychel, who had 406 showings with five NHL clubs and has made countless trades in his current role. “No. It’s just the way the game is.”

The unflappable sort can latch onto that logic pretty quick. For others, peace is harder to find. When it lands, though, the page-turning is unmistakable. “You just feel he’s more comfortable this year, in the room,” says Zajac. “I think that’s given him some confidence.”

“I wouldn’t want to be playing against him.”

Other things are helping Hall move in the right direction, too. The Devils coaching staff, led by John Hynes, is one people in the game rave about, even if the wider hockey world still holds antiquated assumptions about New Jersey and The Trap. Last summer, Hynes talked to Hall about the need for him — as the squad’s most talented player — to be a “culture driver,” a challenge the player has met head on. To a man, the Devils see Hall as one of the most influential forces in the room thanks to his meticulous preparation and focus. It’s almost disorienting to contemplate the fact Hynes is Hall’s sixth coach in just eight NHL seasons, so imagine the impact of that volatility on Hall, who had to play through it when he was still cutting his teeth in Edmonton. The continuity he’s found on the east coast has added layers to his game. “Defensively, he’s helped out with me a lot,” Hall says of Hynes. “I think there’s a lot of accountability; not just for me, but with our whole group. How you have to play defensively, how you have to back check — really, just everything on that side of the puck. He’s [also] let the offensive guys on this team do their thing. But when it’s time to defend, you have to be there.”

That Hall has embraced that balance — you don’t have to win the Selke, just work to get the puck back and we’re happy to let you freestyle once we have possession — is a credit to Hynes and the staff. “I think that [his] coach and the organization have put him in a really good place to succeed and sort of minimized the deficiencies in his game and really, really accentuated the positives,” says a member of a rival front office.

Stepping up down the stretch with 17 points in his final 10 games, Hall helped the Devils secure their first playoff berth since 2012.

Of course, none of the fans who showed up to Newark’s Prudential Center the night Montreal visited came in giddy about Hall’s defensive hustle. The Devils faithful chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!” are delighted by what their new star — relatively speaking — does on the attack, especially against the backdrop of his incredible streak. Before the first period ends, Hall produces the point everybody in the building is yearning for. With his team on a power play, he’s stationed at the right point. When the left blue-liner, Sami Vatanen, slides him the puck, Hall initially fakes the shot he’s been known to use more this year, dribbles for just a second, then whips a low wrister on goalie Charlie Lindgren. An attempt that was likely intended to produce a rebound does just that and the puck finds its way to the stick of Zajac, who quickly cradles, curls and fires high into the left corner. In the second period, Hall adds another power-play assist on a goal from one-time Edmonton teammate Patrick Maroon, who joined the Devils at the trade deadline. “He’s a really good guy, he’s a really good teammate and I’m excited to have him on my team right now,” says Maroon. “I wouldn’t want to be playing against him.”

That widely held sentiment only picked up steam down the stretch, when the Devils needed him most. The streak may have ended two nights after New Jersey pumped Montreal, when the Winnipeg Jets became the first club in 27 tries to keep him off the game sheet, but Hall’s crunch-time heroics demonstrated why his Hart case goes far beyond the partisan screams of Jersey face-painters. A couple weeks later, he took a breakaway pass in overtime from Hischier — an understated rookie whose mature-beyond-his-years game has perfectly complimented Hall — and slipped the puck between the pads of Matt Murray to give New Jersey a critical extra point in Pittsburgh. Then, with the Devils’ playoff spot still in doubt, Hall rumbled into run-away train territory, netting five goals in a crucial three-win stretch that essentially punched his team’s post-season ticket. On Easter Sunday, he scored a shorthanded tally in Montreal that saw him slip out of the penalty box for a team that had been down two men, take a feed in the neutral zone from Zajac, pivot, push toward the net and squeeze the puck past Carey Price on the stick side to break a 1-1 tie late in the third. In Game 79, he victimized another future Hall of Famer — Ranger Henrik Lundqvist — for two more goals, including a penalty-shot strike executed at full speed that screamed, “This is my team. Come get us.” The message is being heard. “He’s dominating the NHL like he was dominating the Ontario Hockey League,” says Rychel.

Because that’s true, Hall is about to experience more change. Expect him to embrace second-season hockey with no hesitation.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images; Jason Franson/CP; Frank Gunn/CP; Adam Hunger/AP; Gene J. Puskar/AP