Inside Taylor Hall's transformation -- and what's next

ByGreg Wyshynski via ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 18, 2018

NEWARK, NJ -- It's the first time The Taylor Hall Show has run this late in the year. Cory Schneider has seen most of its previous performances. He still finds it captivating.

"I've had front-row seats all season long. It's been a great show. Hit after hit," said the New Jersey Devils goalie, raving after Hall's three-point night in the Devils' Game 3 win Monday night over the Tampa Bay Lightning. "It's been unbelievable to see what he's doing for our team, and the playoffs haven't slowed him one bit."

It was Hall's first playoff win, in his third playoff game.

Correction, courtesy of Hall: "It's not my first playoff win. It's ours, as a group."

Granted, the group isn't winning anything without the contributions of the 26-year-old left wing. Of the eight goals the Devils have scored in this series without the benefit of an empty net, Hall has a point on five of them. In the regular season, Hall factored into 38 percent of the Devils' goals. As the team scratched and clawed for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Hall put together a nine-game scoring streak during which he scored 17 points; to put that in perspective, he scored more points in the Devils' final playoff push than a few of his teammates scored in the entire regular season.

"They have a superstar on their team who drives a lot of what goes on there," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Or, as Schneider surmised: "He's our MVP and should be the MVP of the league."

That Hall will be a finalist for the Hart Trophy is a near-certainty when they're revealed in the next week. His candidacy is a product of the team's unexpected success, with a dash of recency bias to be sure. But it's also a product of Hall's commitment to becoming that next-level player, at the behest of his coach and general manager.

Devils GM Ray Shero calls Hall's first year with the Devils "the grieving period."

When Hall was traded by the Edmonton Oilers in a one-for-one deal for Devils defenseman Adam Larsson on June 30, 2016, he talked about using the trade as motivation.

"I'm a proud person and I take this as an indictment of me as a hockey player," he said.

Being jettisoned from the Oilers, after they drafted Connor McDavid and appeared to finally be on an upward trajectory, was devastating.

"I felt I did everything I could there, so it's pretty hard not to feel slighted, not to feel a little disappointed with the way everything shook out," said Hall, who played 381 games with the Oilers from 2010 to 2016 without a single playoff appearance.

In his first season with New Jersey, Hall played fine. He had 20 goals. He had 33 assists. He played 19:20 per game and instantly made a moribund lineup more dangerous offensively.

But Shero didn't acquire him for "fine."

"He's capable of more," said Shero at the start of this season, "And he knows that. We met at the end of the year for a long time. That conversation [concerned] what I was about, what he was about and what I saw. I want to make these guys better. Unless I'm honest with him, as to what I see, I'm not going to make him better."

John Hynes, the Devils' coach, had similar concerns after Hall's first season. That the defensive side of his game wasn't where it needed to be, for example. That he needed to train harder. And that while he would provide the occasional spark for the team, his performances weren't yet reaching the "leading by example" that Hynes wanted out of Hall.

"Taylor's a player that we expect to be a leader on our team, and the way we want to play," said Hynes at the start of the season. "We feel within our group and our room, that if he can lead with the way he plays, he's going to help this team take the next step."

Those words seem prophetic now.

Hall credits Hynes with making him a better two-way player, which is one reason for his sudden uptick in offense. The Devils play an aggressive style with plenty of pressure on the puck carrier, and Hall did that in exemplary fashion: His 81 takeaways were a career high, and nearly 40 more than he had last season (43).

(Credit for his defensive effectiveness, and offensive dominance, should also be shared with frequent linemates Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri.)

Hall also credits Hynes with giving him accountability. "He holds everyone accountable in how we have to play on the other side of the puck," Hall said. "He might give me some freedom offensively, but I've got to play the right way in the D-zone, or I'm not going to play."

Hynes had little reason not to play him. And Hall became the pacesetter they needed him to become.

"Taylor Hall is Taylor Hall every night, to me," said Devils forward Blake Coleman after Game 3. "He's a professional. One of the best players on the ice, night on and night out. I'm just used it by now, really."

Are Devils fans used to it?

Plenty has changed for the Devils since their run of three Stanley Cups in eight years from 1995 to 2003. They went from playing in a swamp to playing in a city. They bid farewell to longstanding (and micromanaging) general manager Lou Lamoriello, and now actually market their product.

The emergence of Hall as a superstar is another tectonic shift for the franchise. The Devils have been synonymous with their star power radiating from the crease outward, whether it was Martin Brodeur as the face of the franchise playing behind Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, or more recently with Schneider as the team's top name.

Consider this: Of the Devils' top 10 scorers in team history, none have been a Hart Trophy finalist. The highest-placing forward was Zach Parise in 2009, finishing fifth after a 45-goal campaign. Ilya Kovalchuk was never a Hart Trophy contender for the Devils, nor Brendan Shanahan nor Peter Stastny nor Alex Mogilny.

But Brodeur? He finished in the top five for the Hart seven times and was a finalist three times.

He used to hear those "MVP!" chants from Devils fans. Now, they belong to a forward. With due respect to the scorers that preceded him in Jersey, none seemed so present and dangerous on every shift. With none of his predecessors did it seem like every time they touched the puck, something was going to happen. That's where Hall is right now.

"He wants this. He certainly wants to win. It makes it easy to play for him," Coleman said.

So after the best regular season of his career, Hall sets that same tempo in the playoffs, where he admits it has been a learning experience for him.

"A lot of ups and down. A lot of momentum swings. That's what you have to expect in a playoff game, I'm kind of learning. You have to keep an even keel. There's always a chance to turn the tide," he said, as he stood in the Devils' dressing room after Game 3.

One year ago, Hall stood in that same room in a green Bauer Hockey T-shirt and a Toronto Blue Jays hat, his locker cleaned out for the summer after a year of "grieving" and a last-place finish in the conference.

"Pretty much everything but the on-ice play was awesome. So we need to fix that for next year. I need to be better. But we're not that far off," he said then.

One year later, the Devils are a playoff team. Things were fixed. Hall was better.

Much better.

"He's the reason we're here. And he's the reason we're going to continue to move on from here," Coleman said.

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