Taylor Hall is for sale again. It seems he’s destined for this, toiling away on an also-ran while the speculation about his next stop, and his impending free agency, consumes all the oxygen around him. He has become a drifter, the object of blame for an organization-wide failure. Is it merely coincidence?
In some ways, Hall planned for this. With an uncertain market after the bubbles of this past summer and fall, and Hall the prize free agent, finding a long-term home at the price he would desire would have been tricky at best. So Hall chose to re-audition for the big role again, taking a one-year deal in Buffalo. The hope was that playing alongside Jack Eichel, the best center he’s had since leaving Edmonton, would provide enough numbers and goals and highlights to kill a horse (pun kind of intended). Either Hall and Eichel would turn the Sabres into enough of a force to make the playoffs, or Hall could go through the trade deadline process again with boosted stats.
None of it has worked. Hall has two goals all season. The Sabres are a disaster big enough that the place is being covered in gasoline and about to be torched to the ground again to collect on the sports version of insurance money. GM Kevyn Adams is taking calls on everyone, and that list starts with Hall.
Hall is having a very strange season. The two goals on the board suggest he’s been slightly above “town drunk” levels of usefulness, but that’s not the case. Hall and Eichel have dominated possession when on the ice for the Sabres, and Hall is carrying some of the best metrics of his career. His Corsi percentage and expected-goals percentage, relative to his team, are by far the highest he’s ever produced. Some of that is due to the rest of the Sabres being what you find under the floor mats in a clown car, but some of it is due to Eichel and Hall.
If this were NBA Jam, you’d be incredibly sick of the excitable announcer yelling, “Can’t buy a bucket!” when Hall is on the ice. He’s shooting 2.5 percent, which is an international flight’s distance from his career mark of 10.1 percent. This is clearly some bad voodoo.
On the other side of the argument, Hall just isn’t quite the threat he was. His MVP season is something he’ll be unlikely to repeat, so it’s not fair to compare anything he does now to that. But Hall is averaging far fewer attempts, shots, and chances per game than ever before. It’s not that clean, of course. Eichel is as big of a scorer as Hall, or he could be, and he dominates the puck just as much. Hall is used to being the driving force on a line, but Eichel needs his touches too.
That will be the question for teams: Just what is Hall now? But that won’t stop a lot of GMs from calling. The price for Hall last year, when he was dealt from New Jersey to Arizona, was a 1st and 3rd round pick and three B-level prospects (at best). In a flat-cap world and with Hall’s two goals acting as an anchor on his price, it’s unlikely the Sabres can expect that. Just a first-rounder plus something would be a decent enough haul.
Who will be looking? Elliotte Friedman on yesterday’s Hockey Night In Canada suggested the Blues will be a front-runner, as they’re low on top-tier scoring and are facing a face-full of either the Knights or Avalanche in the first round. The Predators and Blue Jackets have clawed back into the playoff chase in the Central division, but the Preds were on the verge of a total teardown themselves just a couple of weeks ago. Do they want to fork out? Never rule out Vancouver doing something stupid. Carolina probably should make a call, as you need all the weapons possible to overcome Tampa Bay with a returning Nikita Kucherov in the playoffs.
The question for Hall is what will happen in the summer. His bet on himself, taking a one-year deal in Buffalo, is already marked as a loss. He’ll be entering free agency with just about every team being up against the cap sporting counting stats of a very down year. Would he take another one-year deal? Just about the only team that could offer him the long-term cash he was worthy of is Seattle, if that’s something he wants to do and big free agents are something an expansion team even would have interest in.
What both Hall and any team looking to sign him will have to figure out is what Hall will be when he loses a step off the world-class speed he still has. Is this season more than just all the bad luck? Some scorers always find a way to find space and bury chances, but Hall has been more of a blunt-force scorer. When he can’t get around to the outside of defenders regularly, or streak away on counters and odd-man rushes, what will he be? He’ll be 30 next season, and any team signing him for multiple years had better have a clear idea of that answer when shelling out anywhere from $6-$9 million per season.
What is likely, either at the deadline but definitely in free agency, is that Hall will not be viewed as the franchise-turner he once was. Being seen as a contributor instead of foundational will lower his price, but it also may be where he’s most comfortable. Maybe Hall will benefit from a Phil Kessel-like path, going from the main man somewhere that was simply too toxic or incompetent (Toronto) to be successful to somewhat behind the front line (Pittsburgh) leads to something better. Teams like Carolina, Boston, Colorado have money coming off the books and are already contenders.
For now, Hall will continue to drift through the various hockey lands, searching for his righteous cause.