Taylor Hall: The Fallback Centre

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.

The Quote

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.

  • D

    RNH’s injury is a good test to see if there is depth within the ranks of the skilled guys to be consistently competitive. Success for the Oilers will entail working around an injury or two among the top skill players.

    • Rocknrolla

      The start this season will be crucial.

      Long road trip, 9 new guys, nuge out for most of oct….

      If we make it to nov above 500, this team makes the playoffs.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    “more recent attempts under Craig MacTavish to put Ryan Smyth and Fernando Pisani at centre both ultimately failed.”

    Just curious why you attribute Smyth to center as a MacT decision?

    Given his GM timeline and his comments about giving Arco a shot last year, I think it is safe to say he not only wasn’t involved in this decision, but wasn’t in favor of it either.

      • Romulus' Apotheosis

        I don’t remember this.

        Can you fill in the blanks? What was the situation?

        Was it a one off freak thing, like Petrell playing one game last year at C, or was it an extended run?

        • It was an extended run.

          If I remember right, MacTavish started Smyth at centre out of training camp in 2003-04 and gave him a good run – if I had to guess from memory, I’d say 20-25 games – in the middle. The Oilers had lost Comrie, and that was before Shawn Horcoff was really trusted with big minutes.

          Again, IIRC, the Oilers never really solved the problem until they brought Petr Nedved in at the deadline.

          • Romulus' Apotheosis


            My memory for these kinds of things (line blenders and positional cock-ups) is very short term.

            If KL gave MacT a rotten hand back then, it’s even more likely he was chaffed to see Tambo do it to RK last year.

            Though the C depth is questionable at best right now, I think MacT will act much quicker should a waiver pick up show itself or a trade becomes necessary.

  • Klima's Mullet

    What we see here is a guy willing to do whatever he can for his team. Whatever role, whenever he’s asked. Hope the rest of the team follows his lead. This is where his true leadership will be tested. Good luck Hall.

  • D

    I would be much more comfortable with this than having Arco or Miller play on a scoring line right off the bat. If either of those guys have a good camp, then maybe they can break in on the fourth line but Eakins sounds like he is going to give his top 6 plenty of minutes so we need our best players on those lines.

  • Citizen David

    With Yakupov moving to left wing for a few games what happens of Rajala out plays Hemsky in camp and pre season? Does he make the top six? Or because Yak on the left is just temporary and they’d be more comfortable with Hemsky on the third line would Rajala not get the shot?

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    I think moving Yakupov to the left wing would be a poor decision. He’d be much stronger and productive on the 1st line RW. Put someone else there.

  • Citizen David

    Hall actively trying to avoid be “Kronwalled” last season may not have gotten a lot of discussion but I would put this as one of the bright spots. May his career be long and prosperous.

  • The lack of adding another C makes more sense now.

    I was reading Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract 2013 (highly recommend it), and he has come up with a way to figure out how many passes a player makes that results in shots at the goal.

    This is to help figure out who is the best playmakers and who makes their team mates better.

    In the small sample that was last season, Vollman has this to say:

    …Crosby was still on top in 2012-13, with 5.42 passes (that result in shots) per game. Only Edmonton’s Taylor Hall, who was second with 5.00, was within a full pass per game of Pittsburgh’s phenom.

    That’s incredible.

    Hall is unreal and having him fill in at C until RNH is full speed and keep Hemsky around to fill in the top 6 is a very good idea.

      • Playing with guys like Eberle, Gagner, and RNH certainly helps..I bet Crosby ups that 5.42 to over 6.00 if he’d play with players like that, Dupuis and Kunitz are good finishers around the net but their talent level isn’t the same.

        • Citizen David

          Except that the number is passes that lead to shots per game. Finishing ability has nothing to do with it. What it shows is that Hall is a darn good playmaker.

    • toprightcorner

      Awesome tidbit, thanks for sharing. Last year it really seemed as though Hall was looking to make a play before just shooting compared to his first 2 years in the league. That shows maturity and that you can be more successful using your team-mates instead of trying to be the hero.

      I would prefer Hall stay on the left side but it would be foolish not to give him at least a look there and Nuge’s injury may provide the time that makes sense. If he struggles in the first few games, you move him back to left before it affects his confidence but who knows, could be a Messier all over again when he was moved to centre and Hall may thrive and dominate at centre as well.

      You don’t know if you don’t try, you just can’t force it.

      Hall is the ultimate team guy and will always do what the coach thinks is best for the team, heck, he may even surprise himself!

  • TayLordBalls

    @Citizen David

    If you’re wondering why people are knocking your comment, try to remember the last time a small offensive player in his early 20s with no NHL experience knocked an experienced offensive player of Hemsky’s stature and age off the roster.

    While I don’t doubt that if Rajala keeps up his strong play in the AHL and Hemsky is traded/injured he may get his chance to shine, the odds of him beating him out in training camp are slim to none. Especially since the Oilers are going to want Hemsky to play out-of-his-mind hockey to boost his trade value again so both sides can get what they want, finally.

    • Citizen David

      I never said it was likely. It is a possiblility though. I am not a Hemsky fan. Lowetide may believe he’s the Oilers best RW. I think he’s 3rd. Conversely I’m a huge fan of Rajala. He’s on the upswing, Hemsky’s on the decline. Not likely but definitely a possiblility.

      I’ll probably take heat for my opinion of Hemsky. But ask the other 29 teams what they think of Hemsky. Every single one said pass.

      • Citizen David

        It won’t rock the boat to have Hemsky in the top 6 at the start of the season. But he needs to make the changes necessary to be effective as a third liner. The sooner we can get test that transition the better.

        It would be nice if someone earned the top 6 for our RNHless game 1 so we could get Hemsky locked in on the third line.

        The sales pitch that stuck with me on Hemsky was spontaneous offence. I like the idea of a guy on the third line that can generate something from nothing as long as he isn’t negative overall.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Hemsky post 2006 will go down as the most overrated unproductive mistake in Oiler history. The Hemsky apologists who claimed he is only a proper center away from being a star have been proven wrong.

      I fear this year will be as bad as it gets as Hemsky as a 3rd liner doesn’t make sense. He is a disaster inside his blueline.

  • toprightcorner

    I am from the school of having Yak on the right side, and push Hemsky to the left wing. Yak’s one timer will do more for the team than Hemsky cruising around not passing or shooting and ending up turning the puck over anway.Besides, Hemsky ends up on the left side 70% of the time.

  • toprightcorner

    Would Lander on RW be better than Rajala? Could Perron fit on the top line?

    Perron – Hall – Eberle
    Hemsky – Gagner – Yakupov
    Jones – Gordon – Lander
    Smyth – Arcobello – Brown

    • toprightcorner

      Sorry formatting

      Perron – Hall – Eberle
      Hemsky – Gagner – Yakupov
      Jones – Gordon – Lander
      Smyth – Arcobello – Brown

      • Quicksilver ballet

        Eager or Joensuu- Konopka- Brown

        trade jones for kenopka or throw them a draft pick, hes mean he hits he fights…hands down toughest line n the league

        I know everyone loves the Smid Petry duo but I would rather see it like this


        2 ruskys make final 7 so yak can have some pals 😉

        • Quicksilver ballet

          how about Joensuu-Lander-Hemsky for our 3rd line….honestly iiiiiiii like it!!

          they all represented their countrys Finland, Sweden and Czechs…im sure they will be replaced with guys who wouldn’t stand a chance making those IIHF teams!!

  • toprightcorner

    I think the fact that the Oilers whenever there is a center injured they can just move hall to center is great. People complain about center depth but if hall works out as center it will be a lot better then people thought.

  • Hemsky plays wherever he can get a lot of points. Period. Everyone else suck it up and take one for the team. I have no idea why they don’t put him on LW with Yak on the right. Probably because it’s obvious.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I was starting to wonder when a few key guys were going to put the teams needs before their own. Hall, or Eberle, was hoping one of those two would make that step into the middle.

    Not much to write home about on the left side if Taylor slides into the middle. Can anyone make sense of why there’s still so many holes on this team and we’re up against the cap again?

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Probably has something to do with our #1 centre being injured…

      As for being up against the cap, we have a 5mil 3rd liner and the cap dropped down for this year.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Maybe he mistook “being prepared to wear the C” to “being prepared to play C” ;p

    Actually it will be quite interesting to see him play center, because if it works well, then they can move Sam to wing which would make more sense in the long run.

  • Rocknrolla

    Irresponsible speculation time!

    In the 11-12 season, they moved Hall to the middle and he was all for it.
    In fact, he emphatically told anyone that would listen that he was a centre all the way up until he got to the Spits (who moved him to LW due to a logjam of pivots).
    He made it sound as if playing centre was something he’d preferred to do.
    Now he’s done a complete 180.

    Here’s where my unfounded speculation comes in.
    I wonder if Hall is saying this in order to help his chances of making the Olympic team.
    He knows the team won’t have a lot of natural wingers on there, and moving guys from the middle to the wing hasn’t always worked out in the past.
    So maybe that’s why he’s being so vocal about wanting to stay at LW if at all possible?