Things have been trending in the right direction for the Edmonton Oilers lately – albeit very, very slowly.
While the club has dropped four of their last seven games, the return of Connor McDavid on February 2nd has served as a noticeable emotional boost for the young Albertan squad. But amid McDavid’s resurgent return – which has seen the 19-year-old post 12 points in the seven games since he’s been back – the Oilers have seen one of their other marquee stars tail off considerably.
Taylor Hall started the season on an absolute tear, scoring 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) through the first 35 games of 2015-16. That elite level of output positioned Hall as the fourth-highest scorer in the league at that point, bested only by Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin, and Jamie Benn.
However, since Hall’s three-point outburst on December 21st, he’s been on a steady decline. In the 22 games since that contest, he’s scored only 3 goals alongside 8 assists. He’s also been a minus-14 during that 22-game stretch, erasing his plus-13 from the previous 35 contests.
Hall’s shooting tendencies have been the most troublesome aspect of his downward trend. Dividing his 2015-16 campaign into 15-game segments, we see the pace of his offensive decline. The first 15 games of the season saw him fire 61 shots on net, scoring six goals for a shooting percentage of 9.8 percent. The following 15 games saw a slight increase – 63 shots, eight goals, and a shooting percentage of 12.7 percent. That brings us to the 30-game mark, about a week prior to the start of his spiral.
The beginning of his fall is reflected in the next 15-game segment, which saw Hall register slightly fewer shots (54) but far fewer goals (2) for a shooting percentage of only 3.7 percent. He’s currently 12 games into the next 15-game segment, and has only 31 shots and two goals thus far in that span.
To put that in perspective, Hall’s shots-per-game pace has fallen from 4.06 in the first 15 games of the season to 2.48 in his most recent stretch, and his goals-per-game pace has fallen from 0.40 down to a paltry 0.16.
It seems McDavid’s return didn’t do Hall any favours either. Since the two young stars weren’t able to find chemistry as linemates early in the season, McDavid’s return has simply meant a reduced role for Hall. Emphasis and ice time has begun shifting to McDavid’s line and away from Hall’s underperforming one.
Hall had averaged 20:05 minutes of ice-time per game for the entire season up until McDavid’s return on February 2nd. In that game, a dominant 5–1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, McDavid played 16:43 minutes while Hall played a season-low 13:33 as head coach Todd McLellan opted to rest him after the All-Star game.
However, the tides have shifted for Hall ever since that game. In the six contests that have followed, McLellan has used his top scorer much less than he did through the first 50 games of 2015-16. Hall has averaged only 16:20 minutes of ice-time since McDavid’s return – and the fact that he hasn’t done much in those minutes has led to McLellan playing McDavid for an average of 17:31 minutes. Hall has posted only two points (both assists) in that six-game span, though he has put up numbers in one problematic category – penalty minutes.
Frustration seems to be getting the better of Hall at the moment, as he’s racked up 12 penalty minutes in the past six games – including 10 in the past three games alone. In fact, in 57 games he’s already tied his career-high of 44 total penalty minutes, a mark he posted in 75 games two seasons ago.
It’s been a rough stretch in regards to his dealings with the referees as of late. Hall hasn’t been taking penalties due simply to an indomitable brand of hard-nosed play – he’s just been making ill-fated decisions at the absolute wrong times.
Take the first of those particularly rough three games – an away tilt against the New Jersey Devils. With the game tied at 1–1 heading into the final minute of the first period (New Jersey having previously scored on the powerplay), Hall was called for a delay of game penalty with eight seconds remaining in the period after he wired a no-look, spinning clear attempt over the glass from his own zone. The penalty killed any momentum the Oilers had gained, forcing them to start the second period on the defensive. Hall nearly scored coming out of the box, but opted for a dicey pass into traffic rather than taking the wide-open shot.
Hall was called again late in the third, with the situation looking much the same. New Jersey had scored on the powerplay just a minute earlier, taking a 2–1 lead. With the Oilers clawing back, Hall was sent to the box on a slashing call after delivering a wild two-handed chop just feet from an official. Edmonton escaped from the penalty kill unscathed, but were unable to mount a comeback in the final nine minutes remaining after the penalty.
The Oilers’ next game saw the club dominate the Toronto Maple Leafs to the tune of a 5–2 score. While McDavid and Jordan Eberle combined for nine points (scoring five and four, respectively), Hall posted a stat line of zero points, a minus-two rating, and an embellishment call.
It was a telling example of everything seeming to go wrong for the 24-year-old, as he did manage to fire six shots on net, the second-most on the team behind Eberle’s eight. However, while Eberle earned a hat-trick with his attempts, Hall’s night resulted in simply more frustration.
In Edmonton’s most recent game, a shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets, that frustration took the form of untimely penalties once again. Down 1–0 to the Jets midway through the third period, Hall was called for tripping on a reckless play that saw him fly into Winnipeg’s zone at full speed as the Jets tried to break out – his stick tripping up Tyler Myers and sending him flying in yet another absurdly obvious penalty play. Hall was bailed out by teammate Matt Hendricks, who scored shorthanded to tie the game up.
However, that didn’t stop Hall from nearly sinking his club yet again when he was sent to the box just 16 seconds into overtime – called for slashing Bryan Little’s stick out of his hands. Making matters worse was the fact that a late penalty from Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele meant the Oilers were starting the overtime period on a powerplay of their own. But with Hall in the box nullifying that man advantage, the Oilers lost their best shot at clinching the game, and the two teams traded chances until Winnipeg ultimately closed it out in the shootout.
The issue here isn’t one that includes the usual dramatics of Edmonton Oilers discussions – there’s no need for Hall’s name to be included in trade talks and this stretch says nothing about his status as one of the club’s top players. Rather, it simply shows where the Oilers truly are in their progress.
Of all of Edmonton’s young stars, Hall is the most veteran. He is not technically the oldest of the Oilers’ core players, but it was his first-overall draft selection that began the new era of Oilers hockey, and it is he who has led the charge for the last half decade.
And yet, he remains a 24-year-old kid – one who can just as quickly play the best hockey of his career as he can fall into a spiral in which frustration derails his effectiveness altogether. While Hall will surely get back on track at some point, it’s clear that the Oilers desperately need more than just defensive help or solid goaltending alone. Rather, the club needs veteran leadership and a captain with enough years under his belt to guide the team’s young stars towards the consistency exhibited by the game’s truly elite talents.
Perhaps general manager Peter Chiarelli will be able to kill two birds with one stone by swinging an offseason deal for a reliable veteran defenseman with added leadership acumen (see: Weber, Shea), but until then, it seems clear that simply plugging in some improved talent on the blue line won’t right the ship immediately for Edmonton.