As Taylor Hall makes what will likely be his final tour through Western Canada as a New Jersey Devil, he is choosing his words with care.
Yes, he’s a pending free agent. No, he doesn’t know how everything is going to unfold.
“Honestly, I don’t even know my value as a player,” he told Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds in Winnipeg. “I’m just trying to play hockey, that’s all.”
Ah, if only it was that simple to be Taylor Hall these days, as he battens down the hatches on his intentions “going forward,” as they like to say.
The best — and likely final — window into Hall’s career game plan was left open late in the summer, when he spoke at the NHLPA Golf Classic at Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ont. There, Hall talked not as a member of the Devils team that owns his rights, but as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent — one that was betrayed by the first team he played for in Edmonton, and vows this time around to direct his own career.
“You want to play on the best team possible, and I’ve played nine seasons in the NHL and only won one playoff game,” he said that day. “I only have so many more years left in this league, and so many more chances to win a Stanley Cup. It hasn’t even come close yet, so I kinda want to make up for lost time.”
Edmonton failed Hall, denying him a playoff appearance in six seasons before dealing him to New Jersey, a playoff team only once in the past three seasons. With every loss this season, the pendulum will swing towards Hall walking away as an unrestricted free agent — or if the Devils are not playoff-bound, likely a trade by general manager Ray Shero.
Would he return to Edmonton? Could the Oilers afford him? Which of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Darnell Nurse — or both — would have to be sacrificed to fit Hall in under Edmonton’s cap?
The golden boy — a handsome, well-spoken No. 1 overall pick back in 2010 — seemed like he’d be an Oiler forever when he signed that six-year, $42 million contract. Today he’s barely even a Devil, if you listen to the chatter that follows him across the National Hockey League grid.
“It’s as distracting as you want it to be,” Hall said on Tuesday. “Certainly it’s motivating, in the sense that you want to up your value as a player. But, I’ve always wanted to up my reputation as a player — since I’ve come to Jersey I think that’s been the case.
“Monetarily, I don’t think I’m trying to make any more money. I just want to play well and try to contribute to wins. If you want to make a distraction you can, but I’ve tried to limit my comments and just focus on playing.”
Well, we’ll call Hall on that last part.
Last Wednesday he took a shot at Devils fans who booed the team during a 7-6 loss to Tampa. “We’re kind of battling our own fans at this point,” he said. “We’re 1-for-3 on the power play and we’re getting booed. It’s a tie game and we’re getting booed
“I know when we’re playing somewhere and their fans start booing, it’s a fun environment for the away team to play in.”
It’s what we’ve always liked about Hall, personally. He has never been afraid to speak out, or worried about whose feelings get hurt.
And he didn’t back down, cupping his hand to his ear after scoring his goal at home, as if to say, “Anyone booing now?”
“I really didn’t mean anything by it — it was more in jest than anything,” Hall explains. “The fact that I wasn’t playing my greatest, I was hearing some boos, and you finally see a goal go in…
“I’ve loved playing in front of the home crowd there,” he adds, “but anything you do during a contract year is probably going to make a little bit more noise than it would otherwise.”
'Can you hear me?' – @hallsy09, probably.
Taylor Hall scores a beauty after being checked from behind. pic.twitter.com/OcMzbipnwl
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 2, 2019
Hall would be the cherry on the sundae of a Cup contender this season, though most contending clubs wouldn’t have the cap space to give him the $9 or $10 million he’ll command as a free agent. If he made $9 million in Edmonton, the salaries of he, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl would add up to $30 million.
In Toronto, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Auston Matthews add up to $33.5 million, a situation that may shed some light on Hall’s intentions.
Back in golf season, when the easy glare of the sun seemed so much more comfortable than the harsh glare of the cameras, Hall looked to Tavares as a trail blazer.
“John did something that really hasn’t been done before. He made a decision for himself and was definitely aware of the ramifications in Long Island,” he said. “I think he’s pretty happy about it, so there’s definitely a changing landscape. There’s always going to be different stuff that happens throughout the course of seasons, and you’re starting to see players have a little bit more of a voice.”
A voice that won’t say much here in Alberta, even if the wheels upstairs are churning away.