Taylor Hall was interviewed yesterday on Oilers Now, and he made it pretty clear that if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins isn’t ready to play on opening night he could easily find himself at centre to start 2013-14.
I have been told to be prepared to play centre at the start of the year. I’m not sure what Nuge’s timetable is right now; I’ve heard very good things about his rehab process and I know Nuge is a guy who is going to work very hard at that. He’s not going to take any shortcuts so I know that when he’s supposed to be ready to play he will be ready to play. But I’ve been told to kind of work on my faceoffs and just maybe be prepared to play centre for the first four or five games, which is fine by me. I’ve always taken the side that if the coach wants me to play centre, then I will, but my preferred spot is left wing for sure. I feel I’ve really grown into that spot and playing with guys like Nuge and Gags I feel very comfortable on that left side, but like I said I’ll be ready for anything.
Bumping Hall to centre in the short-term makes some sense, but of course it leaves the Oilers with a weakened left side. David Perron is the obvious top left wing, and the Oilers could also either bump somebody like Nail Yakupov over or elevate one of Ryan Jones, Ryan Smyth or Jesse Joensuu. My guess, given the continued presence of Ales Hemsky on the roster, would be that Yakupov plays left wing for a few games. The lines might then look like this:
- Nail Yakupov – Taylor Hall – Jordan Eberle
- David Perron – Sam Gagner – Ales Hemsky
Regardless, it seems likely that it would be a short-term move only – Hall’s comments make it plain that his preferred position is left wing, and given the Oilers’ current depth chart it makes great sense for him to stay in the position he’s comfortable playing. Besides, the Oilers have an imperfect history of moving wingers to the pivot position – everyone remembers Mark Messier making the switch successfully but more recent attempts under Craig MacTavish to put Ryan Smyth and Fernando Pisani at centre both ultimately failed.
The Other Comment
While Hall’s comment about playing centre is the immediately relevant one, he made another point that is likely to be more important long-term:
I think I made a subtle change in my game last year with the injuries that I had had. I wanted to be a smarter player and just a player that is a just a little more heads-up. In doing so, I found that I saw more of the game. When I’m stickhandling up the ice I made sure to have my head to see where all my players were, not only to make passes for them but to make sure that I wasn’t going to get hit or put myself in a bad position. I think it really helped me see the ice a lot better.
Hall’s assist rate has been commented on before, but it’s remarkable and deserves mention again. Here are his 82-game goal and assist rates over three NHL seasons:
- 2010-11: 82GP, 28G – 25A – 53PTS
- 2011-12: 82GP, 36G – 35A – 71PTS
- 2012-13: 82GP, 29G – 62A – 91PTS
We’re projecting 45 games in 2013 over an 82-game schedule, so it would be a mistake to read too much into this. Also worth noting is that at even-strength last season Hall picked up points on 92.1 percent of all Oilers goals scored with him on the ice – given that long-term anything over 84 percent seems unsustainable it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those assists tail off a bit next season. Even so, Hall’s assist rate basically doubled last year, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe this represented a legitimate and significant step forward for the player.
At least as interesting is the idea of self-preservation. Hall’s style of play – and his penchant for taking big hits – has been a concern since draft day; as fun as it is to watch there has always been a concern that he will wear down more quickly over time in the NHL than other young players. An adjustment on his part to make himself less vulnerable could go a long way to allaying those concerns.