It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write anything, so I’m glad to get my thoughts out on this particular topic. Dating back to the 2012 offseason, I kept convincing myself that then-general manager Lou Lamoriello would work his magic (that he seemingly revamped in the 2010 offseason), and sign Zach Parise to a long-term extension, avoiding free agency.
When he wound up going to the Minnesota Wild, Devils fans were saddened and angered by his departure, but ultimately accepted that Ilya Kovalchuk would become the new face of the franchise. He was only 29, and entering the third season of his infamous 15-year deal he signed in 2010. Even after missing the playoffs during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, there was great optimism the Devils were only another forward or two from returning to contention, which Lamoriello seemed (at the time) to address early in the offseason.
Then the bombshell happened.
Kovalchuk’s unprecedented “retirement” literally pulled the carpet out from under the organization’s feet, and caused a void from which they still haven’t recovered. Longtime veterans like Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias were in the twilight of their careers and nowhere near the players they once were. Lamoriello made a few noteworthy additions in the following seasons like Mike Cammalleri and Jaromir Jagr, who ultimately failed to get the Devils back in playoff contention. Simply put, not only has the organization remained on the outside looking into the playoff bubble these past few seasons but they lacked any team identity.
It’s possible that could have all changed when general manager Ray Shero made the groundbreaking acquisition of left wing Taylor Hall in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson. Hall understandably had to adjust to his new organization and teammates last season but had an immediate impact, which isn’t totally represented by his seasonal totals of 20 goals and 53 points. Things are certainly different this year not just for Hall, but the entire Devils team that’s in the midst of a dynamic resurgence, which No. 9 is spearheading.
Although the Devils recently lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets and snapped a four-game winning streak, it didn’t stop Hall from stretching his current point streak to 19 games with the team’s only goal last night. He hasn’t gone without a point since the new year began, and despite the Devils going 9-12-2 since in the calendar year (Hall was out for three games over that stretch), he’s been the one constant his team has been able to rely upon. In 55 games, he has 25 goals and 63 points (14th in the league), which equates to 1.15 points per game (seventh in the league), and already exceeds his 2016-17 season totals by 10 points.
While he’s not solely responsible for New Jersey’s turnaround this season, he’s thrived since embracing his role as the team’s star player and demonstrator of exemplary leadership—some people are even making cases for a Hart nomination. He has two years remaining on his current contract after this season, but between the organization’s current direction and Shero’s near-perfect history of re-signing his team’s core players, it’s not inconceivable to think Hall will be sticking around in New Jersey for a very long time.
All factors taken into consideration, I think it’s safe to say the Devils have reestablished a new identity under with Taylor Hall. As we all know, he spent the first six seasons of his career with an Edmonton Oilers organization that never caught a sniff of postseason play during that time. When he first arrived in New Jersey, Hall was quoted saying he was determined to make the Oilers regret dealing him, a proclamation that’s starting to take shape.
The Devils haven’t had a player as dynamic as Taylor Hall since the days of Parise and Kovalchuk. It’s been even longer since they’ve had someone putting up the type of numbers he’s projected to finish with this season. The last Devils players who had seasons comparable to Hall’s play this year date back to Brian Gionta in 2005-06 (48 goals, 89 points), Zach Parise in 2008-09 (45 goals, 94 points), and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2011-12 (37 goals, 83 points).
It’s not just Hall’s numbers that make him a special player. When you watch him on a nightly basis, you begin to notice all the little things he does that don’t show up on the score sheet, and the impacts they make in each game. I can rave about Hall’s speed and dexterity all day, but his physicality is fiercely underrated, along with his ability to be effective in all three zones. He plays with a degree of tenacity and feistiness that very few players in this league possess.
The heart and soul Hall puts into every game and shift is a brand that no Devils player has exhibited in quite some time. While the team might have a sort of over-reliance on him, his importance to them goes without saying, and while he hasn’t even been a Devil for two full seasons, he’s captured the hearts of countless Devils fans, brought this organization a brand of new hope, and reason to get excited before attending or tuning into a Devils game.