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NHL

Taylor Hall Brings Buffalo Hope But Makes No Promises

Taylor Hall #91 of the Arizona Coyotes waits for a puck drop
Claus Andersen/Getty

Taylor Hall’s little odyssey spanning some of the least relevant teams in the NHL has made an unexpected though thematically appropriate stop in Buffalo. It was the Sabres, a franchise that has not tasted the postseason since 2011, who made the biggest splash yet in free agency by signing the talented left winger to a one-year, $8 million deal.

This is potentially a really thrilling move for a team that’s had some potential to play some fun hockey but has never been all there since the Jack Eichel era began in 2015. Last season, before it got cut short, was perhaps a small step forward for these Sabres—though they once again finished sixth in the Atlantic—but bringing on a powerful offensive force like Hall immediately gives them an enviable forward-winger combo that could instantly propel them into, if nothing else, playoff contention.

But the 28-year-old Hall is no surefire hit, and a big part of his task in Buffalo will be proving that he can get back to the level he hit two teams ago in New Jersey. And it’ll be the Sabres’ task to show Hall that he ought to think about sticking around for a while. As fun as it is to imagine Buffalo piling goals into opposing nets, there’s also a variety of less exciting ways that this could go for Hall and the Sabres. I’ve taken the liberty of listing them, from worst to best.

1. Hall can get injured.

The poor health of Hall’s knee in 2018–19 prevented him from following up on his stellar MVP campaign, as a mysterious pain that couldn’t be explained by MRIs eventually led to surgeons discovering “loose fragments in his knee.” Gross. Though Hall completed his rehab and got on the ice for 65 games last year, I’d be remiss not to bring up some sort of recurring problem (he also had shoulder surgery in 2012) or another, all-new ailment as the potential worst-case scenario.

2. Hall can be less than advertised.

Hall’s career high of 39 goals puts him in the company of the league’s elite scorers, but his average season is something closer to the high 20s. Playing on a line with Eichel is undeniably a step up from his last few companion centers, but the question still remains: What kind of player is Buffalo getting? The short length of his contract means that Hall will be as motivated as possible to produce eye-popping numbers, but if you staunchly believe in regressions to the mean, then Hall is less talented than the guy we saw almost single-handedly lift Jersey to their first postseason in six years.

3. Hall can be a great mid-season trade piece.

Hall’s one-year deal isn’t as much of a red flag as it may seem at first glance—the flat salary cap and the general state of sports right now are discouraging anything long-term at the moment. But it still, obviously, means that Hall’s time in Buffalo could be just as short-lived as his time in Phoenix, where he was traded by the failing Devils in the middle of last season. If the Sabres find that they have barely improved with Hall on the top line, but they’re nevertheless getting solid production from him, it shouldn’t be too difficult to exchange him for a decent haul from a playoff contender that needs him more.

4. Hall can be a crucial rental for a nice little playoff run.

Now we get to the good stuff. The Sabres, on paper, look better than they have in years, thanks also to the step forward that Eichel took last season, the recent trade for Eric Staal, and the promise that 20-year-old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin holds as he enters Year Three. Particularly in the NHL, with its overstuffed playoffs, it’s not a stretch to imagine Buffalo rising enough to extend their season, which would be an unqualified success by their low standards. Then, having re-proven his worth as a first-line scorer on a playoff team, Hall can then go on to sign a mega-deal with any number of suitors.

5. Hall can be Jack Eichel’s bazooka for years to come.

Check this goal out:

OK, now check this one out:

Now do the math! In Hall, the still-improving Eichel—a guy who can already wave a magic wand and watch his wingers’ goal tallies go up—gets the best left-hand man of his career. Since his team is so easily ignored, the former second-overall pick Eichel has become just one name among many in that transcendent 2015 draft class. But even playing alongside guys like Victor Olofsson, and Sam Reinhart in a shortened year, he finished Top 10 in points and scored a career-best 36 goals in 68 games. And he’s still only 23 years old.

In Eichel, Hall gets his most talented teammate since he roomed with a young Connor McDavid (god, what could have been). After hanging alongside Christian Dvorak with the Coyotes, or Nico Hischier with the Devils, Hall will now be in a situation where he won’t necessarily attract the majority of the defense’s attention. Thanks to his new buddy, he should have more space, more opportunities, and more goals. In the dream scenario, this combo could approach something like what Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have in Colorado. But even if it’s not quite that explosive, these two could bring out the absolute best in each other for a long time.