Of all 31 NHL teams, none are blessed with more salary cap space than the New Jersey Devils, a fact that is not lost on its most dynamic forward.
Taylor Hall sounds emboldened by his club’s off-season additions. Excited yet, like a fan base that has watched the Devils finish outside the playoff picture for five straight seasons, far from satisfied.
“We’ve got some good pieces. I don’t think they’re done by any means. I think there’s some things they’re still looking to do,” Hall said at Smashfest VI.
It’s unclear if he’s relaying a message from or sending a wish to management.
The Devils’ decline since coming within two games of winning the Stanley Cup as a surprise finalist in 2012 has been sharp and prolonged. Five consecutive whiffs on the post-season equals New Jersey’s longest drought, mirroring the one established way back in its infancy as a relocation franchise.
As a 35-year-old member the NHL family, New Jersey has produced more than its share of Hall of Famers, championship banners, and memorable runs, but its story is book-ended by disappointment.
This past season, the Devils were mired among the bottom third in offence (28th), defence (24th), power play (22nd), penalty kill (23rd), and home attendance (27th).
In the ’80s, they called it “Mickey Mouse”; now they call it rebuilding the right way.
The Devils’ playoff thirst is no match Hall’s personal one, a sore subject he’s always been candid about.
“It’s been seven years now for me without playoffs. I didn’t go to the world championship or have surgery or anything, so it’s just felt like a long summer, but I’m excited to get back to it,” said Hall, who moved to Toronto to practice with more NHLers and hopped on the ice roughly two months earlier than normal.
“I’ve had some long summers, and this one right now seems to probably be the longest one of all.”
General manager Ray Shero took a scalpel to his roster this summer, first buying out the contracts of Hall’s locker pal Mike Cammalleri and depth forward Devante Smith-Pelly. (They inked one-year value deals with L.A. and Washington, respectively.) First-rounder Beau Bennett (now with St. Louis) was allowed to walk for nothing at age 25, and Marc Savard’s clunky cap hit came off the books.
So even with some below-the-radar additions — namely free agent Brian Boyle and trade acquisition Marcus Johansson — the Devils sit roughly $19.42 million below the cap ceiling with only RFAs Damon Severson and Stefan Noesen to sign.
Another scorer? A dependable defenceman? Shero is in position to buy, and the Devils’ fortunes may be turning.
Huge welcome @nicohischier to NJ. Excited to have you!
— Taylor Hall (@hallsy09) June 23, 2017
A self-proclaimed “lottery ball specialist,” Hall wasted no time reaching out Nico Hischier. Hall did the same with Connor McDavid by inviting McDavid to live with him during the MVP’s rookie season in Edmonton.
In addition to firing a few text messages to the Swiss centre, Hall caught clips of Hischier’s development camp and is pumped to work with him at training camp.
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about him as a player and as a guy. He’s a huge addition to our team,” said Hall. “I went number one before, so I know what it’s like. If he has any questions, I’m sure we’ll talk about it.”
As an all-eyes-on-me rookie, Hall racked up 22 goals for a struggling Oilers team, and is well-suited as a mentor for an 18-year-old CHL phenom who needs to make hockey his focus.
“Not everyone’s going to win the Hart Trophy in their second year or score 40 in their first. You have to come in and just worry about yourself as a player and improve on Year 1, Year 2, Year 3,” Hall explains.
“I don’t think anyone’s expecting [Hischier] to score 100 points next year, but we certainly want him to be a valuable part of our team and contribute. It’s up to him, but as a group we have to shelter him a bit and make sure he’s comfortable.”
Hall uses the word “huge” to describe the acquisitions of both Boyle and Johansson.
The former is a versatile, big-bodied, 32-year-old centre best suited to the bottom six, but an experienced pro who can contribute by winning final-minute, own-zone faceoffs or chipping in on both special teams.
“We need that depth in our lineup,” Hall asserted.
The latter is smooth 26-year-old skater coming off a breakout season in which he erupted for 24 goals and 58 points, standing out on a loaded Washington Capitals squad.
Shero swooped in and grabbed Johansson for a couple of draft picks when the Capitals’ pay scale got out of whack.
“The Johansson trade was huge. He’s a great player. That really gets you excited for camp. You want to play with those guys, see what they’re all about,” Hall said.
“He looks like he can play well on both sides of his stick. Playing with those guys in Washington, you play with those high-skill players. When you go to another team, you’re valuable to learn off of.”
Even if/when they add another player or two, the Devils will enter 2017-18 as the underdog of a fierce division, home of the two-time defending champs, the Presidents’ Trophy winners, as well as a quartet of playoff contenders (the Rangers, Islanders, Hurricanes, and Blue Jackets) who each made their own splashes via trades and free agency.
Nonetheless, Hall remains optimistic and determined. He must.
“I’d like to get to the playoffs, experience that spotlight, the energy, having your team be able to compete for the Stanley Cup,” he said.
“That’s all I want to play for, so hopefully that happens soon.”