Taylor Hall to debut for Devils tonight


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Taylor Hall leads an improved Devils offense in 2016-17. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Devils Hockey House.

It’s not often you get a former first overall pick in the off-season. Precisely what happened when the Devils acquired scoring forward Taylor Hall from the Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson. The deal came down on June 29. It sent the 2011 fourth overall pick Larsson to Edmonton for the 2010 first overall selection Hall.

When it happened, most of the hockey world couldn’t believe Devils GM Ray Shero was able to get Hall straight up for Larsson. Nothing against the talented skating Swede. But the idea that the Oilers didn’t get anything else still seems absurd. Hall is capable of scoring 30 goals and putting up 80 points. Larsson is a good skating defensive defenseman who can log big minutes as he did last year playing all 82 for the Devils.

The game has changed. Puck possession is more valued. So, Edmonton is banking on Larsson to bolster their Achilles heel on the back end. If he proves capable and the Oilers make the postseason with a loaded offense that features Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with possibly 2016 fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi, then the gamble will pay off.

Meanwhile,.the Devils knew they needed to upgrade offensively. So, getting Hall was a no-brainer. Signed thru 2020 at a cap hit of $6 million per season, the soon to be 25-year old is entering his prime. Following an injury riddled ’14-15 that limited him to 38 points in 53 contests, he led the Oilers in scoring with 26 goals, 39 assists and 65 points in a full 82. The talent is there. However, a few former teammates questioned his character. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to a new team.

The Devils boast Hall’s former junior teammate Adam Henrique. They played together on the Windsor Spitfires. In ’09-10, Hall led the club with 106 points (40-66-106) as a 17-year old while Henrique ranked third with 77 at 19. The two combined for 37 goals and 60 points in the OHL playoffs on a team that also featured prominent NHL defensemen Cam Fowler and Ryan Ellis.

Reuniting them along with leading scorer Kyle Palmieri could potentially give the Devils a lethal top scoring line. Something the NHL’s lowest scoring team lacked in support of all world goalie Cory Schneider. An injury to Mike Cammalleri didn’t help.

They’re also hoping former first round pick and top prospect Pavel Zacha is ready to make the jump. In his NHL debut, he recorded two assists.If the 19-year old Czech who went sixth overall in ’15 is ready, New Jersey should be much improved on offense.

When they host the Rangers in a preseason rematch at Newark, Hall will make his debut in a Devils sweater. It should create plenty of excitement at The Prudential Center. Hall will play on the top line with Henrique and Beau Bennett.

“It will be fun to play,” Hall told reporters. “I want to make a good impression and we want to keep building our game. I’m looking forward to having a game where I can not only build on my play but on the team’s play.”

Schneider was also expected to make his preseason debut following the disappointing USA result in which he barely played. But he’s a late scratch due to soreness. Anders Lindback gets the call. Palmieri will be in the lineup for the first time.

Another forward to watch is Reid Boucher. Coming back from a hip flexor issue, he says he’s ready to go. The now 23-year old former fourth round pick is expected to provide more consistent offense. He registered eight goals and 11 assists in 39 games last season. In 73 career games, he is 11-16-27.

Joseph Blandisi also was an interesting find. A speedy and skilled forward, he needs to produce better than five goals and 12 helpers in 41 games. He definitely is capable of contributing in the top nine.

The Devils recently signed veteran defenseman Kyle Quincey to a one-year, $1.25 million deal. Clearly a depth move with ex-Pen Ben Lovejoy also part of a revamped blue line that features anchor Andy Greene and third-year player Damon Severson, defense is an area that is a question mark. Any time you subtract a dependable player such as Larsson, it’s hard to replace the role he played.

New Jersey will look to Severson for more consistency after a up and down ’15-16 that saw him score only one goal in 72 games. John Moore returns as does Jon Merrill. Another young player who must show more.

Former 2013 second round pick Steven Santini is still looking to make the roster. After spending three years at Boston College, the 21-year old debuted in one game last season. If he’s not ready, they can send him down to Albany for his first pro year.

Devante Smith-Pelly made an impression tallying eight goals and 13 points in 18 games after coming over from the Canadiens for first round bust Stefan Matteau. He could play on a third line with Travis Zajac. Jacob Josefson could play with free agent veteran addition Vernon Fiddler. Sergey Kalinin also returns.

All-time leading scorer Patrik Elias remains unsigned. Are they going to work something out so the popular Czech and two-time Stanley Cup winner can go out the right way? As someone who appreciates what he’s brought to the Jersey side of the Hudson Rivalry, I hope so.

There is also a battle for backup goalie between Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood. Kinkaid had a down year while Wedgewood was impressive in a brief stint.

Overall, the Devils should score more goals and continue to get strong netminding from Schneider. As Hasan has noted, having a dependable backup is a key to give Schneider nights off in a condensed schedule. It probably will come down to the defense. If they perform adequately, they should be a playoff team.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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