Monday, October 12, 2020

COLUMN: Trying to Make Sense out of Taylor Hall Signing with the Sabres


      
     NHL free agency has gotten off to a slow start, as only one of the biggest players on the board signed on day one, with Torey Krug going to St. Louis. But between the big two free agents, Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo, it took until the night of day three for one of them to make their decision. That was Hall, one of the premier left wingers in the game, who has played for lowly franchises in Edmonton and New Jersey for most of his career. Hall, who just experienced a first round exit with the Coyotes, was expected to go to a legitimate contender for the first time in his career. Instead, he went to one of the seven teams that did not make the expanded playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres. 

        Even though it was known that Hall would sign a short-term deal with Buffalo, it was a weird signing. In the end, he agreed to a one year deal worth $8 million, which is something that other teams could probably top. Even if you evaluate the other six teams that didn't make the playoffs, Buffalo doesn't have the history of Detroit, the lovely weather like any of the California teams, the familiarity of New Jersey, or even Ottawa, which isn't close to Hall's hometown of Calgary but is at least in the same country. All of this, plus New York's high state tax, makes for a confusing decision by a 28 year old. But, there are some upsides. 

          Hall, a scoring winger who is also a great playmaker, is coming off of an injured season, and a down year. In 2019-20, he scored 16 goals with 52 total points in 65 games. His 0.25 goals per game was the lowest of his career, and this is a guy that was 19 in his rookie season. His 0.80 points per game was also his lowest since 2016-17, and this is coming off of two seasons with a points per game well over 1.00. The former Hart winner has always had one issue: being on teams with a lack of star power. In New Jersey, he played with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, who are good, but not exceptional. In Arizona, he wasn't a top line guy, playing with Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak. In Buffalo, Hall will finally have a linemate that will bring his stats up, and not the other-way-around. 

          So far, the Sabres have completely wasted Jack Eichel's career. As the soon-to-be 24 year old enters his prime, he has not played in a playoff game. He is coming off of a season with a career high 36 goals in only 68 games. For most of the year his wingers were Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson. While both can be consistent 20 goal scorers, they are not on the level of Hall. Eichel has shown that he can boost a player's stats, as when Jeff Skinner came to Buffalo in 2018-19, he scored 40 goals on Eichel's wing after a 24 goal campaign. When Eichel had new linemates, Skinner's production dipped, down to 14 goals. 

         Hall's plan seems to be to follow Skinner's path, but without the year two struggles. Playing with Eichel, both forwards could get to 100 points, even in a 70 game season. He could definitely eclipse his career high 39 goals and 93 points set in his Hart winning 2017-18. He also has a full no-move and no-trade clause, which means that if the Sabres struggle like they are expected to, he can control who he is traded to. If Hall has a strong year, then he can bait a team like the Sabres to give him a deal similar to the eight year, $72 million contract they gave Skinner after his 40 goal season. He also has familiarity with Buffalo Head Coach Ralph Krueger, who coached Hall with Edmonton in 2012-13. 

         However, there is a bit of a risk involved here. If Hall is injured, or doesn't perform with Eichel, then he isn't going to get the money he wants long-term. But even if he does score around 40 goals, then teams have an excuse to balk at a price that Hall would want, since he probably won't want another 1-2 year deal. Skinner's success with Eichel followed by a sudden downfall after being paid shows a sign of caution around doing it all again with Hall. While Hall still has a pedigree that Skinner doesn't, keep in mind that he will be 30 in November of 2021, the first year on his new contract. When Skinner signed his eight year extension, he had just turned 27. Whether it would be an eight year deal with the Sabres or a seven year deal with someone else, it is unlikely that a smart team would go the max distance with Hall. If the salary cap stays flat, that makes it even more unlikely. The Seattle expansion draft can help a team, as the Kraken would be a franchise that would take an unwanted contract for draft picks. 

          This deal is a no-brainer for the Sabres. They increase popularity with a former MVP, and they can see an increase in ticket sales (if that is a thing in 2020-21) thanks to Hall. The increased publicity leads to more money all-around. While Hall might be using them, they can ship him off for a first round pick and more like the Devils did last year. This also gives Eichel another star to help improve the team, and keep Eichel's morale up, as there were trade rumors weeks ago surrounding the center. 

          Overall, for Hall, this deal still raises question marks. But if Hall gets a Skinner-like deal next year, whether it is with the Sabres or another team that currently had interest in him, then everything about his tenure in Buffalo is worth it. If he gets injured or underperforms, this could be the mistake of a lifetime. 

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