QSAO\’s Insights around the NHL: First impressions of the Taylor Hall trade

By Constantine Maragos

As I am sure everyone knows already, pending UFA Taylor Hall has been traded in probably one of the fastest “trade sagas” I have ever seen, however, with no shortage of drama. When news came out that Taylor Hall would not play against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday, December 13th, Hockey Twitter exploded. There was chatter across the league as to where Hall may end up, with as many as eight to ten potential suitors. The Florida Panthers even went as far as to scratch Henrik Borgstrom and Aleksi Heponiemi in the AHL for ‘precautionary reasons.’ However, it seems that Devils GM Ray Shero had not exactly made up his mind on where Hall would end up just yet. Hall sat out for two games against the Arizona Coyotes (go figure), and the New York Rangers before the Coyotes won the sweepstakes on December 16th.

For those who do not know, the official trade shaped out to be Taylor Hall and Blake Speers for defenseman Kevin Bahl, forwards Nick Merkley & Nate Schnarr, a conditional 2020 1st round selection, and a 2021 3rd round selection. The 2020 1st is top-three protected (moving to a 2021 1st if that is the case), and there are two conditions on the third: the pick will become a 2nd if the Coyotes are to win a playoff round or if Taylor Hall re-signs with the Coyotes, or become a 2021 1st if Taylor Hall re-signs and the Coyotes win a playoff round. 

I read a few rumours before writing my last article and saw Ottawa 67’s defenseman Kevin Bahl as a player that could be of interest to the Devils. When I opened up my Twitter after final exams to find him trending in Canada, I instantly knew what I had missed. Hockey Twitter certainly blessed me with a post-exam surprise I was not (but really was) expecting,

When a player of Hall’s calibre gets traded, it has ramifications across the league. In the latest edition of QSAO’s Insights Around the NHL, I will break down the Taylor Hall trade for both the Devils and Coyotes, revisit the PK Subban trade, and look at Toronto’s surge up the Eastern Conference standings.

1. SPOTLIGHT: The Hall Trade — Did New Jersey get enough?

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At face value, the reaction you will get out of most people for New Jersey is ‘that’s it?’ which, in all fairness, is justified. 

While the Devils did not get a bad return for Hall by any means, you have to think that there were better offers on the table. By the looks of the deal they accepted, marquee prospects such as Philip Broberg, Bowen Byram and Victor Soderstrom were far away from discussions (without an extension there is no reason for any of them to be anyways). We also have an idea of what the Florida Panthers were offering, which looked enticing. However, GM Ray Shero stuck to the plan of strengthening New Jersey’s LD prospect pool, which prior to the trade was barren.

While New Jersey did not acquire any elite prospects, that should not discount 6’7 defenseman Kevin Bahl, or the picks they received as well. Former 2015 1st round pick Nick Merkley looks to be a depth NHL piece, scoring at around a .61 PPG pace on a good Tuscon Roadrunners team, but since moving to AHL bottomfeeders in the Binghampton Devils, he has yet to record a point, albeit only in two games.

While it may not be the popular opinion, I am interested to see how Kevin Bahl pans out. As a 2018 2nd round pick, he provides tremendous size and a decent overall game. From what I have read, Bahl projects as a fourth or fifth defenseman at absolute best. He is currently in the Czech Republic with Team Canada for the World Juniors and watching him in their 6-4 win against the US, he showed some nice flashes of play. In particular, in their game against the US I noticed he sent a nice bank pass up to Raphael Lavoie, eventually leading to Connor McMichael’s 2-1 goal to jumpstart Team Canada’s comeback on the way to a 6-4 win.

While the players in this package are fine, the value for New Jersey lies within the picks they received. Acquiring another first-round pick in a deep draft means that they will have the chance to add another quality prospect in the bottom half of the first round at least. Also, with the way that the Coyotes have been playing, and how the Pacific Division is shaping out, the Coyotes look to have a good shot at winning a playoff round, meaning an upgraded 2nd round pick in 2021. Further, Hall is keeping his options open for free agency, and the Coyotes will have the first shot at signing him. Given that Arizona has an opportunity to showcase the city and the talent on their team, I would not rule out Hall as a pure rental just yet.

Given their circumstances, New Jersey did pretty well in their return for Taylor Hall. They pulled the trigger at the right time so not to back themselves into a hole, and open up opportunities for their younger players, or rather set themselves up into a better lottery position. Again, while the return could have been better, this is not a bad package by any stretch.

2. SPOTLIGHT: The Hall Trade — Where does Arizona go from here?

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For Arizona, acquiring Taylor Hall is a statement to the rest of the NHL.

This is an excellent follow-up to the piece I wrote last month, as a perennial scorer in Taylor Hall is exactly what the Coyotes needed to take them to the next level. Prior to the trade, Arizona had low, balanced scoring across the roster. Through 35 games, only three players had scored more than 20 points (that being Clayton KellerNick Schmaltz, and Christian Dvorak), and only one player (Conor Garland) scoring more than 10 goals. Additionally, at the time of the trade, the Coyotes were tied for first in the Pacific Division with a division-leading goal differential, while only ranking 22nd in Goals For.

Since acquiring Hall, the Yotes have gone 2-2-0, with Hall recording 1 goal and 3 points, including an assist on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s game-winner against the Sharks. Additionally, the Coyotes have played half of those games without their best player Darcy Kuemper, who is listed as week-to-week with a lower-body injury, as well as Niklas Hjalmarsson who remains on IR but has begun to skate in the last few weeks. 

While it goes without saying that Hall provides tremendous value to Arizona’s lineup, it is interesting to see how forward Nick Schmaltz has seen his best run of production since the beginning of the season as well. Since the trade, Schmaltz has 7 assists in four games, his best streak since mid-October, where he scored 3 goals and 9 points through six straight games. With that being said, while we have yet to see a direct increase in production from Hall himself, his presence in the lineup has allowed for Schmaltz to catch fire with linemate Clayton Keller.

Now, with defenseman Jason Demers back from injury, Niklas Hjalmarsson nearing a return, and Darcy Kuemper’s injury hopefully not too serious, Arizona looks poised to lead the Pacific Division.

The only downside to winning a weak division is that a 1st place finish may put the Coyotes in a more vulnerable position than placing second, as the West is currently dominated by the Central. For example, if Arizona were to finish atop the Pacific, there is a very good chance they would play one of Winnipeg, Dallas, or Nashville, who are all better teams than any of their Pacific competition, save Vegas. Either way, with Taylor Hall in their lineup, the Arizona Coyotes look ready to make headlines as competitors in the West. 

3. The P.K. Subban trade revisited

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At the 2019 NHL Draft, fans around the league scoffed at the return the Nashville Predators received for PK Subban. Now, a lot of David Poile’s critics have quieted down a bit.

As of right now, Subban is on pace for by far his worst NHL season, with only 3 goals and 7 points through 37 games. Amongst NHL defensemen with a minimum 200 5v5 minutes played, Subban ranks 140th in Corsi For at 48.08% (2nd amongst Devils defensemen). Additionally, Subban averages a 2.4 xGoals/60, ranking first among Devils defensemen, as well as a 2.48 xGoals Against/60 ranking last amongst Devils defensemen.

Of course, it is unfair to say that Subban is “finished” per se, as his underlying numbers are not atrocious, but he has shown a stark decline as of late, even spanning to last season with Nashville. Subban often found himself trying to do too much, leading to unnecessary turnovers and high-quality chances against.

Looking at some comparables, the likes of Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty come to mind. While both have been a part of some awful teams this season, they have still put up 27 and 25 points respectively, while also averaging more minutes in more defensive scenarios. Looking to the powerplay, one of Subban’s strong suits, he has recorded only one secondary assist in 81:22 of 5v4 powerplay time, whereas Doughty (131:34) and Karlsson (107:18) have 8 points each. With that being said, all three teams have comparable powerplay success, with roughly the same goal totals (17 goals for NJ, SJ & 16 for LA) at similar rates. While Doughty and Karlsson have been burdened with backstopping weak teams as well, they have still been able to produce, whereas Subban is underperforming heavily with a far less defensive burden.

Also, note that Doughty leads defensemen in individual expected PPG at 2.72, while taking far more shots than any other defensemen at 41. One thing I must say is that from watching Subban the past two seasons with Nashville, Subban was trigger happy on the powerplay, and would bomb shots from the point at will. Evidently, he has not been able to do that this season, with only 13 shots on the man-advantage. Whether it be that he cannot find open lanes as often, or he is playing in a more timid role, Subban has been incredibly less effective with his shot this year. While playing on a bad team this year has hurt Subban’s play, it seems that his lacking play has done more to contribute to New Jersey’s down season than suffer from it himself.

4. Rookie Report: Olofsson takes the lead

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If there were still doubts surrounding Victor Olofsson’s scoring ability, they are certainly gone now. Olofsson has ascended to the top of the rookie scoring race, scoring 5 goals and 10 points in his past 10 games, raising his season totals to 16 goals and 34 points.

Unfortunately for rookie leader Cale Makar, he has been out with a lower-body injury since December 7th vs. Boston, however, he did skate in practice as a full participant on December 23rd. Makar made his return last night, recording one assist in their 6-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Makar has 8 goals and 29 points in 30 games this year.

A rookie that I have not spoken about before who has been quietly carving out a role in the NHL is Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman, John Marino. With injury comes opportunity, and the Penguins have had a lot of both. With that being said, Marino has been a revelation this year. With 4 goals and 16 points, Marino ranks 9th amongst all rookies and 4th amongst rookie defensemen. Further, Marino has averaged the fourth-most minutes amongst rookies (20:04) and is one of four rookies to average more than 20 minutes per game.

Speaking of minute munchers, there have been six rookies to average more than 20:00 since our last article: Quinn Hughes (24:02), John Marino (21:48), Victor Olofsson (20:44), Ethan Bear (20:29), Carson Soucy (20:24), and Vladislav Gavrikov (20:04). Each of these players has seen a tremendous increase in responsibilities since the season began, and for the most part, have played integral roles in their teams’ success.

A few other players to watch as of late – Martin Necas has 5 points in his last 8 games, including two goals in the Hurricanes\’ matinee thriller against the Toronto Maple Leafs. LA Kings defenseman Matt Roy has burst onto the scene with 2 goals and 7 points in his past 10 games, including an OT winner against the Boston Bruins. A bright spot in Detroit’s past eight games has been Filip Zadina, who has scored 3 goals and 6 points in that span, including one powerplay goal.

5. Toronto’s swift surge up the standings — Who gets the credit?

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“But a coaching change can do a lot, and with one of this magnitude, the Leafs should be able to turn things around rather soon”

Well, I would say that quote from last month is rather accurate. 

Since Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they have flown up the NHL standings. Since Keefe came in, the Leafs hold an 12-4-0 record, tied with St. Louis for most wins in the NHL, with a game in hand. Further, in this span, the Leafs have allowed the third least High Danger Goals Against (13), while holding the 3rd-best High Danger Save Percentage (88.79). Leafs fans can now give another collective “thank you” to Fredrik Andersen.

A major area of improvement for the Leafs is on the defensive side of the puck. Before November 20th, the Leafs allowed 52 even-strength goals against, ahead only the San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers, averaging around 2.26 EV goals against in 23 games. Since November 20th, the Leafs have allowed 34 goals against at around 2 even-strength goals against per game over 16 games. With that being said, they have been performing almost on par with their xGA of 32.09 in that time as well.

However, the key to Toronto’s success is the reinvigorated play of their stars. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have improved tremendously since the coaching change. Both players have been playing above a point-per-game pace with 17 and 16 points respectively. Mitch Marner, in particular, has been spectacular, scoring at a 1.7 point-per-game pace over ten games since returning from injury. Even if we want to look at his production outside of their pre-Christmas barnburner against Carolina, he has still been scoring at a 1.33 point-per-game pace, still in the top-10 during that time. He has been a man on a mission, to say the least.

It might just be me, but Auston Matthews received way too much criticism for his compete level and performance during the beginning of the season. There should be absolutely none of that now, as Matthews has been able to control the pace of the game at will with the puck on his stick. Just look to this past week with plays like this

Looking deeper, the Leafs’ offense as a whole has been tremendous. Since Keefe took over, the Leafs have scored 42 even-strength goals, behind only the Minnesota Wild (44). Additionally, amongst forwards with 200 minutes played, four Leafs forwards feature in the top 25 in xGF/60, that being John Tavares (6th), Ilya Mikheyev (14th), Zach Hyman (17th), and William Nylander (25th) (Mitch Marner did not qualify for this statistic).

Unfortunately for the Leafs, they are now burdened with a glutton of injuries. Trevor Moore, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin are all out for significant time, with Mikheyev not expected to be back until playoff time.

With that being said, not only have the Leafs cleaned up their defensive play (relatively speaking), but they finally unleashed their offensive potential. Like I said before, a coaching change can do a lot for a team, and one of this magnitude can certainly turn things around.

Statistics retrieved from NaturalStatTrick, MoneyPuck, FOX Sports, NHL.com

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