His second NHL season ended early by injury and his arm in a sling, Taylor Hall sounded very much like the leader of the Edmonton Oilers he’s become when I lobbed him a softball at Rexall Place today.
With the Oilers in the midst of doing exit interviews after a season in which they missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season, going 32-40-10 for 74 points to finish 14th in the Western Conference and 29th overall, I asked Hall if he’s optimistic this team has a solid core and a promising future. He could have hit the underhand toss out of the park, but he didn’t.
"I definitely think we have a good, young core here and we’re definitely exciting and we definitely have a lot of potential, but I think we were sitting here last year saying the exact same thing," Hall said.
"At some point, it’s got to turn into something. It can’t all be hope and promise because eventually the fans are going to stop hoping, they’re going to stop wanting and they’re going to stop coming.
"I think next year has to be a playoff year. We have to be a contending team, at least, a team that teams are afraid to play because of our skill level, the way we compete and the way we play defense. It is fun to be in that young nucleus of really good players, but we have to do something with it eventually."
HERE AND NOW
Despite being derailed by a nagging shoulder problem, one that would require surgery and end his season, a concussion and a nasty laceration when Corey Potter stepped on his face, Hall had a terrific year with 27-26-53 in just 61 games – an 11-point improvement over his rookie season.
Jordan Eberle made an even bigger leap along the learning curve in his second year with 76 points, a 33-point improvement. Rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins surpassed every expectation with 52 points in 62 games. Jeff Petry took big strides. So did Devan Dubnyk.
What we saw this season was the Big Three take over this team – a year or two ahead of schedule from where I sit — from the likes of captain Shawn Horcoff and old warhorse Ryan Smyth, who both got out of the gate well but deferred to the youngsters as the season wore on.
Everybody with a functioning brain stem knows the hopes for a return to respectability by the Oilers hinge on Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins. For my money, and with due respect to the smarts and skill that Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins bring to the mix, Hall is the key guy. The emotional leader.
Jason Gregor asked Hall about taking on a bigger leadership role next season. Hall, who’d rather lead by example by, say, skating through the end boards at full speed rather than talk about it, acknowledged the growing roles he and the others will play. That they must play.
"As players, we’re all maturing," Hall said. "I know myself, I’m doing the same thing. In the room I want to be more vocal and try to take that next step.
"I want to be here for a long time. I want to be here when we’re the team that’s contending and we’re in the playoffs and everything like that, so I’m looking forward to kind of taking that next step next year along with Ryan and Jordan and having a bigger voice in the room."
I’m of the mind that there’s too much focus on captains and assistant captains and. Leaders will lead, whether they have an extra letter on their jersey or not. I don’t see the need to peel the "C" off Horcoff and pin it on Hall or Eberle. They’ll do what they do, letter or not. I get the sentiment behind such talk, I just don’t believe it holds the impact fans think it does.
There’s no question in my mind Hall is the leader of this team moving forward. He wants the gig. He’ll take it on because that’s the kind of person he is. It was that way when he led the Windsor Spitfires to back-to-back Memorial Cups as MVP and it’s that way now. It’s in his DNA.
Horcoff, of course, will have a hand in that leadership even if he assumes a lesser role next season in terms of ice time and prominence (and he will). So will Smyth, assuming he understands he’ll have to sign for third-line money to get a deal done. Both have important roles to play, experience to pass on.
That said, this is Hall’s team now. It was even before he faced the media mob today and said all the right things, refusing to take any easy outs or accept that six seasons out of the playoffs is OK just because . . . Two years in, Hall has seen enough. Haven’t we all?
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.