Few NHL players have ridden the highs and lows of their careers quite like Taylor Hall has. Edmonton’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft was traded — infamously, one-for-one for Adam Larsson — to the New Jersey Devils in 2016. The move made Hall bitter, especially the following season, when the Oilers became a 100-point team and the Devils sat dead last in the Eastern Conference.
Things took a turn two years later: New Jersey emerged as a frisky playoff team as Hall won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. But he couldn’t ride any of the momentum. A knee injury cost him most of last season, and the Devils once again floundered.
Now 27, Hall is ready for vengeance yet again while staring at a career crossroads. Next summer, he’ll become the NHL’s premier free agent, and the Devils would like to keep him around. After landing the top pick of the draft, Devils GM Ray Shero made a flurry of moves — including trading for Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban and signing power forward Wayne Simmonds — to accelerate the rebuild and convince Hall to stay. The winger, however, wants to be thorough in his decision-making; he’ll take his time to determine where he wants to play.
In a conversation with ESPN, Hall went into detail about his frustrating 2018-19 season, why mainstream marketing opportunities are difficult for NHL players, how he views the Devils and why he looks up to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Mahomes.
It probably went as badly as it could have gone, personally, with the injury and all that. For our team, we had a lot of injuries. Guys didn’t play the way they had wanted to. But sometimes in hockey it’s better to be at the bottom of the standings than right close to the playoffs and not make it. So it afforded us the chance to get Jack [Hughes] and really sped up — not the “rebuild” — but sped up our timeline a little bit.
Around the start of December, I started feeling it a little bit. Played through it and then sat out a couple games to rest because at that point we thought it was a muscular thing. Then I came back, and it felt OK. Had a couple pretty good games, actually. I thought I played pretty well. But the knee just didn’t feel proper.
Then it was our Christmas break, and I vowed to myself to get this thing right and come back and play. It ended up being one of those things where you get an MRI and they don’t see anything, you get another MRI and you send it to people around North America — nobody sees anything. So eventually two months have passed. I’ve gotten a diagnosis that I have a tear in a little tendon around the area. I get that filled with PRP [injections]. And I’m like, “OK, that’s the injury.” Four weeks later, it hasn’t resolved. I’m still feeling discomfort. So obviously that wasn’t the injury. That was just a side effect of everything that was going on. You can have tears, and you can have stuff wrong in your body that isn’t showing any symptoms and not giving you any pain.
So eventually, two months after the fact, we finally decided to go into the knee and find out what’s going on. There’s some loose pieces in there that they took out. Kind of put in some stuff to promote healing and put my knee in a better place for the future, and that’s where we’re at now.
It was really, really hard. Even after the surgery, it was hard. There wasn’t really a timeline after the surgery because it wasn’t something that happens a lot. So it was, “You might feel good in a month. You might feel good in three months.”
There was a period of probably five months there where everything was in limbo. But you keep working hard, you have people around you that you trust, people around you that you like working with. I wasn’t traveling, but I was around the team. When they were at home, I was always here, went to all the games. At that point, I still thought I was going to be playing at the end of the season. Working hard in the weight room and all that type of thing. When the guys went on the road, those are some lonelier times. When you get to the rink, and there’s nobody here, and it’s quiet. You kind of have to make your own mojo and hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
I was out one night in Toronto, and I got a call — I think it was from Ray [Shero]. Might have been John [Hynes, Devils coach]. I forget. They just straight-up asked what my thoughts were and what I had heard about him. I had nothing but good things to say. I knew that he obviously had a personality and all that — that’s all people want to talk about. But at the end of the day, he’s a good hockey player. I’m at the NHL Awards in Vegas when I win my Award, and he’s up for a Norris. And that didn’t seem too long ago in my head. Everyone wants to talk about everything that comes with P.K., but from what I see, it’s a guy that wants to come in and play well. I’ll take that guy on my team any day.
To be honest, there was never a time when I sat with Ray and I said, “This needs to get better.” Nor did he ever ask me anything like that. When I came out in the media and said we need more talent, that was fairly obvious. I think I was saying something that wasn’t news to anyone. I think everyone in the organization saw that this was a summer of opportunity with a lot of teams that were in cap trouble. Last year I was hoping they would make a splash in free agency, but looking back, there probably wasn’t anybody worth chasing after.
They did a great job this summer. I don’t ever look at it like they’re making moves to satisfy me or they’re doing things to make me happy. They’re just trying to create the best team possible, and I want to be the best player possible on this team.
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He makes the game look easy. It doesn’t look like his heart rate is too high when he’s out there because he’s so calm and poised with the puck. He’s never panicking. His stride is pretty effortless. I’m really impressed with his shot. He has a better shot than I saw two years ago when I first skated with him. I honestly thought he could barely shoot the puck when he was 15 years old. That’s only going to keep getting better.
It’s crazy when people say putting yourself out there makes you a distraction to the team. P.K. does a lot, and he hasn’t distracted me once all week from doing my job. At the end of the day, we’re in the entertainment business. I think Ray said that when he traded for P.K.
There’s nothing wrong with some personality. Come to the rink every day, and you see the same people, and they’re saying the same things and all that, but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of pizzazz and some changeup.
There were some things, but they were more like one-offs. Like, “Hey, do an ad for Subway,” and that’s it. I think there was one for Great Clips, a hair-cutting place. But not really. It doesn’t seem like what companies want from the hockey market. I think they like working with the players themselves because we’re easy to work with, but it doesn’t seem like the consumer is going to buy stuff because a hockey player is doing it. But if LeBron James just tweets about it, everyone goes crazy.
There’s gotta be an algorithm or something to figure that out because I can’t tell you. But just the more exposure … we have such a great game. Playoff hockey, when I talk to American people specifically, they love it. They love the intensity. They love everything about it. It’s like, how can we get them fixated on it all year long? Week 1 of the NFL, it felt like the Super Bowl was going on. Everyone wanted to watch it. Hopefully the NHL can get there.
My goal is to play 82 games this season and hopefully set myself on the right path for the rest of my career.
I think that’s probably the highest priority. Lifestyle-WISe, I’m not married or anything. I don’t have kids. I’m not really at a point in my career where location matters to me, if I want to be on the West Coast or East Coast or anything like that. You can make any city great if you’re playing well and you’re winning there. So that’s basically my priority.
I think the coaching staff and management here have pushed me to be not a better leader but a different leader. There’s a maturation process that happens when you get traded and also as you’re getting older. You look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I want to be a better practice player.”
My offseason habits haven’t changed one bit. I work out with a different trainer, but I still work just as hard. Just around the rink, I feel like I have more focus. I’m a little more dialed in on how I need to be every day, whether it’s practice or a game. And whether that’s management, coaches here, maturation or just getting traded, I do feel like a different person, and that’s a good thing.
I love Kawhi [Leonard]. Being from Toronto, I loved watching him this year. That was really cool. I know some people who are around him, and hearing some inside stories about what he’s like and all that is very cool. His personality is so polarizing, and he has a presence about him.
Patrick Mahomes is pretty cool. He’s impressive to watch. Off his back foot, 50 yards, and he fits it in a 5-yard window where his guy is going to catch it. It’s pretty cool. He’s just so talented and just goes out and plays. He has a lot of talent around him, but he’s probably one of the best athletes in the world right now. If he didn’t play in Kansas City — like, if he played in L.A. or New York — he’d probably be even bigger.
I like watching on Sundays, but I’m not a fan of a team. My dad played football [in the CFL]. I love watching, but I don’t love the NFL philosophy. They’re very hard on the players, and there’s a lot of injuries. It seems like everyone is mad all the time. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what it seems like. I watch “QB1” on Netflix. I think that’s a great series. I watched “Last Chance U” too.
A 78-game regular season. It’d be one fewer game a month, basically. Maybe 76 or 78. Just dial it back a little bit. Instead of playing 15 games in March, like we do, make it 14. You’d get one more day off. I think that would be nice.