The Arizona Coyotes “were outclassed,” as head coach Rick Tocchet put it, in their Round 1 series loss to Colorado. Even that might be putting it mildly.
For 23 of the NHL’s teams, including Arizona, the focus is now turning towards an off-season that figures to be unlike any other. And the Coyotes face an especially tough challenge to stay on track and not fall back. They’re without a GM after John Chayka left the team. Reports that Oliver Ekman-Larsson could be available are beginning to build.
And, as noted in our updated list of the top 20 UFAs this off-season, Taylor Hall is one of the most prominent players available on the market. Hall and the Coyotes put off contract talks through the season after he was acquired from New Jersey in December, but now we can start wondering what comes next for the one-time Hart Trophy winner.
The big question in all this is: What does Hall want as he hits UFA status at 28 years old in a strange time when the salary cap will remain flat? Where previously you’d assume he could command a huge payday of possibly $9 million or more, what should we expect now and how much of a discount may he consider taking to join a winning team?
“I think honestly it’s probably all winning,” he said after the Coyotes were eliminated by Colorado. “Any player at this stage in their career who’s had the career I’ve had, 10 seasons only making the playoffs twice, that’s really what I’m after. We’ll see what happens there.
“I don’t think the money is going to be what it was before Covid or before this season, but that’s fine. I think we get paid a lot of money to play a game and we’ll see what happens.”
From last week’s Sportsnet NHL newsletter, and with free agency less than two months away (hard to believe!), here are some potential fits for Hall.
Until he leaves, the Coyotes can’t be counted out, although they’re not the favourites either. This is not an easy one to figure out.
Arizona has less than $2 million in projected cap space so it’ll be necessary to move other pieces out to have a shot at Hall — and what does that say about their chances of being a winning team? The Coyotes were also just penalized a first- and second-round draft pick for violating the league’s combine testing policy, which will further strain their ability to compete in the long run.
And what would they feel comfortable paying Hall to make it work? After all, Hall had the lowest expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5 among all Coyotes forwards and didn’t score once at evens himself. Hall also spent most of the decisive Game 5 against Colorado on the third line.
The Avs have long been a favourite to land Hall because they check off two boxes: They’re a contender and they have plenty of cap space (roughly $22.3 million next season). But how much do they need Hall?
They could use a more proven scorer for the left side of the second line, but Andre Burakovsky stepped up in that role this year and will need a new contract himself. And while Colorado has cap space for now, they also have to be mindful of Cale Makar and Gabriel Landeskog, who will both need to be re-upped after next season, and the cap outlook may not be much better at that point.
As much cap room as they seem to have now, one big contract will all but remove that advantage. The fact is if Hall ends up in Colorado, it likely will come at a discount and possibly on a short term.
The expression “You can’t go home again” comes to mind here, but boy could the Oilers use someone like Hall.
If he were to go back to the team that drafted him, he wouldn’t have to be the focal point, though a UFA contract would bring certain expectations. If the Oilers returned with Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the left side, both of their elite centres would have a proven producer next to them at all times.
Again it comes down to cost, though. Edmonton has $10.1 million in cap space, but have a clear need in net and must also sign RFA Ethan Bear after his solid rookie campaign. Edmonton would need to move out some money to even have a chance here, but perhaps could accomplish that off the blue line.
It’s clear the Canadiens need an offensive specialist and Hall is certainly that. The Habs also have $18.3 million in cap space this off-season, with Max Domi the most notable player to re-sign.
Trade speculation will inevitably swirl around both Domi and Jonathan Drouin, and that could also create space for Hall. Montreal has more than a few cheap contracts for its young players, so now may be the time to take a swing in free agency.
The question is if they’re seen as enough of a contender to appeal to Hall.
5. Dallas Stars
Speaking of teams that need offence: The Stars needed that spark for much of this season, finishing with the 27th-best offence, though they’re suddenly scoring lots in the playoffs.
They also have $18.5 million in projected cap space. Third-line shutdown centre Radek Faksa and backup extraordinaire Anton Khudobin need new deals, but the latter may find better opportunity and money elsewhere, if he so chooses. Mattias Janmark and Jason Dickinson are the current middle-of-the-lineup left wingers, and Hall would be an offensive upgrade on either.
Other than the Avalanche, Dallas may be the team with the best Stanley Cup shot on this list, and that would also be attractive to Hall.
For lovers of rivalries, here’s an interesting thought: What if Hall landed in the other Alberta NHL city?
The Flames have just shy of $17 million in cap space and a whole bunch to figure out about their team. The defence has five UFAs and one RFA on its own, and if Cam Talbot leaves they’ll surely want another option to play with David Rittich. There’s also the matter of Jonny Gaudreau, who has quickly jumped to the top of the trade rumour mill, and just what else could change with the team’s core after back-to-back first round exits.
If GM Brad Treliving overhauls the lineup, perhaps Hall could replace Gaudreau.
The Penguins’ biggest off-season question is in goal, where both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray are RFAs, and only one likely to be back.
They have roughly $9 million in cap space right now, but it may take moving out only one mid-level contract (say, Bryan Rust), to have enough room to sign Hall, even for the short-term. The problem is they just added a mid-level contract with the Kasperi Kapanen trade, so this isn’t an obvious one either.
That said, few teams are as motivated to go all-in on what they have than Pittsburgh, who is staring down the final stretch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s careers. Crosby is 33, granted not slowing at all, but Malkin has just two years left on his contract and there’s no telling what happens after that.
GM Jim Rutherford is pushing hard to keep this going and improve on back-to-back first-round exits, so Hall must be at least on the radar.