Just three lousy months ago if you’d asked any Devils fan what mid-December would look like, nobody would have pictured that not only would Taylor Hall get traded, but that it would happen this soon. Heck, on the eve of the season reports were coming out that Hall had authorized his agent Darren Ferris to negotiate an extension. However, the Devils got off to an 0-4-2 start and things haven’t really improved much on-ice since then. Even Hall himself got off to a middling start before being scratched on the verge of a trade with six goals in thirty games and a -11, though his 25 points show that he can still impact the game even when not playing particularly well.
As invitable as this moment has been for weeks with no extension and the team being further and further buried in the Atlantic basement, it’s still an empty, sobering feeling that it’s come to this. Our only Hart trophy winner is moving on, in part because GM Ray Shero hasn’t been able to get out of the perpetual loser rebuild cycle after five years with no end in sight. Showing Hall the team was serious about winning was an impetus for offseason moves such as trading for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev but neither has really worked out. Gusev has five goals and 14 points in 28 games which is meh production from the ‘best player outside of North America’, but struggled even more away from the puck early in the season. Still, even he’s been better than Subban who’s now at nineteen straight games without a point and counting. Subban would have been a perfect fit on the 2000’s Rangers…big names who flopped.
Heck, our whole team did its best 2000’s Rangers impression. Win the offseason, lose in-season. There’s only so much you can blame on the goaltending, especially when Mackenzie Blackwood’s been the only thing working for this team the last few weeks. Yes, fellow goalies Cory Schneider and Louis Domingue have been so bad they literally don’t give the team any chance to win. Our only win in their combined twelve starts was Domingue’s 5-1 win against lousy Detroit, the only team in the league worse than the Devils right now. And while John Hynes finally paid for the team’s ineptitude with his job, it’s not like things were going to materially change under mini-me Alain Nasreddine. Predictably the effort’s ticked upward under Nasreddine, other than their total no-show in Dallas the other night – allegedly affected by the flu bug. Just as predictably, the only change was to go back to the more up-tempo system of early in the season. Not that it’s done anything to change results yet, as Nasreddine is still looking for his first win as Devils coach, his career record sitting at 0-4-1.
True, last night’s game at Cup hopeful Colorado went better than expected with ‘only’ a 3-1 loss with the third goal coming on an empty-netter. Perhaps if Blackwood started the game he doesn’t give up the killer second goal which not only decided the game but injured Domingue, who either way has probably seen his last game in a Devils uniform, since he’s both been terrible and we would give up a conditional 7th rounder if Domingue played a seventh game for the Devils. Not that it’s immediately evident who would start the next non-Blackwood game. Cory’s numbers are even worse in the AHL than the NHL, which is a scary thought. Maybe make a play for the Pens’ Casey DeSmith? Shero needs to keep throwing stuff at the wall and hope something sticks, you can’t have Blackwood get worn down in a hopeless cause.
Back to Hall though, I really did want to make this post a bit more of a look back at his four-year tenure with the Devils now that it’s over. I was going to save this post for when the trade actually went down but it could be hours or even days before Hall is traded. Whatever we get for him is not likely to affect the 2019-20 Devils in any way, though hopefully Shero can extract a good package back from whoever trades for him. Ultimately the first and overriding memory of Hall has to be his 2017-18 Hart season and the many electric, meaningful goals he scored and created throughout. Whatever happens down the road, there’s something to be said for being the franchise’s only MVP, and leading the Devils to their only playoff berth in the middle of a prolonged downturn. Many of those highlights are on the clip above.
Three that stand out and I remember without even having to look up, his game-winning goal against the Caps in January that started the Hart momentum, and his late-season heroics against the Habs and Rangers that built the momentum to a groundswell. His shorthanded winner against the Habs just after coming out of the penalty box was one of the most memorable plays in the last decade of Devils hockey, since the 2012 playoff run which seems another lifetime ago now. Hall’s four-point night against the Rangers – culminating with an electric penalty shot goal – was perhaps my favorite example of his brilliance that year.
Even with having a dissapointing playoff series against Tampa, Hall had one more night of brilliance with three points in the Devils’ lone win at the Rock, including the game-winning assist through traffic on Stefan Noesen’s goal.
Now that we’ve relived the good times, I have to acknowledge it certainly wasn’t all good for Hall or us here. Hall’s MVP season was his second as a Devil…his first, after the infamous one-for-one trade with Adam Larsson that brought Hall here was a forgettable one for him and the team. A sulking Hall had just 20 goals and 53 points in 72 games for a bad Devils team, and had to watch his former team (the Oilers) make the second round of the playoffs without him. Shero even asked point-blank if Hall wanted to be traded that offseason. To his credit Hall said no, and recommitted himself to his new team, breaking out with a career year as a response.
Nobody was expecting Hall to repeat his MVP season last year, but the fact his season ended after just 33 games with knee issues was a dissapointment. He did manage 11 goals and 37 points in that time, but was clearly hampered by his injury in the weeks even before going on the shelf for good in late December, and his absence sent an already spiraling Devils season straight into the toilet. After an offseason of will-he won’t-he drama towards his re-signing, things seemed to be going in the right direction this offseason but the early-season flameout changed things entirely for both Hall and the franchise. I don’t even want to get into the whole fans booing the PP thing now, he’s frustrated, the team’s frustrated, we’re frustrated. He should still get a video tribute and deserved ovation the next time he comes back to the Prudential Center (unless it’s somehow in a Rangers or Flyers jersey hah).
Yes, it wasn’t his choice to come here and it is his choice to leave (at least in part) but if we can cheer role players like Stephen Gionta coming back to the Rock, we can give Hall an ovation of thanks for giving us hope in a transcendent season that won’t be forgotten. Especially when it doesn’t look like we’ll even get back to playing meaningful Spring games again anytime soon. Hall may be the biggest sale but he won’t be the only one with FA’s Wayne Simmonds, Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene all deadline deal candidates, plus given how annoyed Shero was with the players in the wake of the Hynes firing I could see others getting dealt too. Hopefully the 2020-21 Devils will look different than the 2019-20 Devils, I just don’t know if they’ll be any better.