Before leaving to Europe with the New Jersey Devils, Taylor Hall spoke to me along with his former teammate Jason Strudwick about the upcoming season. We discussed his new commercial with Subway, becoming a more mature player, why playing on his strong side helped his powerplay numbers and much more.
Hall’s comments about the powerplay should interest Oilers fans. If the Oilers powerplay is going to be successful with five left shots, then Connor McDavid should be setting up on his strong side, left boards. Hall discusses that, but first we had to ask him about his recent Subway commercial.
Jason Gregor: How do you feel that your acting chops have improved from your first commercial to this one?
Taylor Hall: Um… not too bad, I mean this one was pretty easy. I didn’t have to say anything which was a huge bonus. If I had to remember lines or anything like that I think it would have gone a lot worse. Basically all I had to do was smile and take a few bites of a Subway club, which wasn’t my personal favourite, but it still tasted pretty good.
Gregor: I know how hockey dressing rooms work at any level, I’m guessing your teammates in New Jersey were having a field day when that commercial came out?
Hall: Yeah, they didn’t even wait until I got to the rink the next day. The text messages were coming in that night. I mean they can only make fun of me so much, I’m just trying to make a little extra side cash (laughs) and trying to promote yourself and trying to promote your brand. I thought that Subway was a good way to do that. They can only bug you so much, because if they got the chance they’d do the same thing (laughs).
Jason Strudwick: No doubt my mind. They would have done it, if they got asked to do a garage sale ad they’d do it. It’s hard to get those types of deals, especially with someone like Subway. That’s great.
Hallsy, I thought that you did a good job in the commercial, but when you had the flag on your back, you were flexing so hard. Were you trying to show that you have a little musculature in your back or what was the issue there?
Hall: Um, yes, so basically just trying to show everyone that I’m working hard in the offseason and trying to get my reps in. Not everyone can be as jacked and strong as you are at the age that you are. So… I mean to be honest there was one little scene where I’m doing sit-ups and they couldn’t get the scene right, or it was the lighting or whatever it was, and I had to do probably two hundred sit-ups and I was so sore the next day from doing sit-ups. I had never done so many at one time.
Gregor: Do you get a Subway card or free Subway now?
Hall: No, I actually I have to go out and pay for my subs, just like everyone else which is fine, I have no problem doing that. They closed the Subway down to do that shoot and anyone who tried to come in and buy a sub, they got a Subway gift card. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my hands on any of those.
Gregor: Okay, let’s get to hockey. What are thoughts on starting your season in Sweden and how does it change things for your team?
Hall: Yes, it’s crazy. We go to Winnipeg tomorrow to play an exhibition game there and leave from there. It’s crazy, we’re gone for two weeks, and we basically only play one regular season game in those two weeks. It’s a long time to be gone, but I think it’s great for team bonding. I think it is a great experience for the young guys who may not have played hockey in Europe before. The atmosphere I’ve heard in Switzerland for our pre-season game is going to be awesome. Then playing the game in Sweden, just the fact that we’re able to play an NHL game in Sweden is something that I will remember for a long time. I’ll have my parents there and a lot of the Swedish guys on my team will have family there as well. It’s a lot of travel and the jet lag is going to be in effect when we get back, but it’s also pretty cool experience for us to go over there.
Strudwick: Hallsy, when you go over there has the team talked to you about what you might do outside of obviously practicing and getting ready for the season, but kind of team bonding events or trips?
Hall: Not too much. I think we’ll probably go out for some dinners. I’ve never been to Gothenburg before, I don’t really know what kind of tourist sites there are there, but I know in Switzerland Nico [Hischier] is pretty excited he gets to see his restaurants and show us around. I actually want to go to find a watch place as that is what they are known for. But other than that I don’t really know our schedule too much. The first couple of days I’ll be pretty tired with the jet lag, but like I said, I’m pretty excited, it’s going to be awesome.
Gregor: Taylor, you’ve faced top pairing defencemen your entire career, that’s not really going to change this season, but now you’re the Hart Trophy winner, that’s a very unique title. I think it comes with different expectations, maybe from other people, but possibly even from you. Have you looked at yourself a little bit differently because of winning the Hart Trophy last season?
Hall: I think that there is a temptation to put more pressure on yourself than last year, but I don’t think that is the way to go. I think you are better off if you just go into the season like it’s another season; looking to prove yourself, looking to play as well as you can on both sides of the puck for your team. I just feel like if you go across sports and you go through athletes who have had successful seasons the best way to go about the next year is to kind of forget about it, to drop it and to start off fresh and new.
Certainly I can take confidence from last year, but putting any more pressure on myself is not the way to go. Its better off I just go play, I know I’m healthy and I know that I’m prepared. I’m excited to get going.
Gregor: You mentioned health. When you dealt with a hand problem last year, how much of an issue was it for you and when did you have it dealt with?
Hall: Yes, it was just something that was kind of lingering around all season long. I basically got cross checked in the hand. I thought I just jammed my fingers like any player does at any point in the season, but it didn’t go away very quickly and I finally got it checked out by a hand specialist. They said the two ligaments on my pinky finger and my ring finger in my left hand were just kind of, they were torn off. But it wasn’t something that was going to prevent me from playing. So basically I got a cast to wear to wear to bed to let the tendons heal a little bit and give the joints a little bit of time to recover. Once I started wearing that, everything felt good in the playoffs. It felt OK, sometimes it would flare up on me but it wasn’t something that would hinder my game a whole lot. Following our playoff loss to Tampa, I got it fixed. Since mid-July I haven’t really thought about it. I’m totally healthy and ready to go.
Strudwick: Not a lot of changes from your group this year. What’s the thought around this team this year on how you can defend that playoff position?
Hall: Yes, we didn’t really add anyone this summer, with is fine because we do have a lot of young guys who played some key roles on our team last year who are only going to get better and better. We just signed Miles Wood to a four year deal. We have Nico and Jesper Bratt and also Will Butcher who are entering their second years in the league, and hopefully we can see big jumps in their play. We didn’t have Marcus Johansson here last year, Kyle Palmieri missed a lot of time, and so did [Travis] Zajac. We’re starting to think if we can have a healthy team for the majority of the year we can maintain our pace from last season. Goaltending as well, Cory Schneider looks great in practice so far. He had hip surgery last year and it was something that was actually bugging him for two years. If he can get back to the level or player that he wants to be, I think that would be huge for our group. I don’t know if we’ll be anyone’s Stanley Cup favourites by any means, but we definitely think we have a really good chance to get back into the playoffs and do some damage.
Strudwick: You’ve been in the NHL a while now, you’ve been with the Devils for a bit. Just seeing the way that you spoke at the awards, in your interviews and how you’re really coming out of your shell. Is that translating into the dressing room as well? Are you more comfortable speaking your mind, and taking more of a leadership role with the Devils?
Hall: Yeah, I think it’s something that you really have to grow into. I think in my younger days in Edmonton I was really thrust into that role and I might not have been ready for it at the time; 20 and 21 years old and wearing a letter in the room and I really don’t have the experience that I do now. Certainly being one of the top guys on the team you’re expected to talk when it’s time to talk, and most of all you’re expected to lead with your style of play on both sides of the ice. The way you practice and prepare and all of those things that go into it. When I’m playing on a line with Nico Hishier and Jesper Bratt, these guys are 19 and 20 years old. They’re definitely looking to me to see how I react and play in certain situations. It’s important to conduct yourself the right way. So that just comes with time and experience and I really feel pretty comfortable with where I’m at in the leadership sense.
Strudwick: Hallsy, I love that you’re bringing that up that your two young guys are watching how you react. I remember when I was younger and I played with Mark Messier, one of the greatest leaders of all time. And whether it was a great shift or a bad shift you would never see him change on the bench or coming off of the ice. That always calmed me down. Is that something that you kind of see now and you’re trying to emulate and copy so that you are a steadying force for not just your line mates, but your whole team?
Hall: Yeah, it really is. I mean when you’re one of the top guys on the team and you know nothing really flusters you throughout the game, I think that really rubs off on your teammates. I know I was a guy at the start of my career who would get pretty frustrated. Just growing up and maturing you get better at controlling your emotions and just staying on an even keel throughout the game and throughout the season.
There are so many dips and so many highs during the season that it’s really important to just come to the rink with the same attitude every day. I’m in my ninth season right now, which is crazy to say, but you just get older and you get more experience in different situations and certainly I feel a bit more even keeled than I used to be.
Gregor: Last year you had your best season, production wise, by a significant margin. You were very productive on the powerplay. You set up a lot more on the left wall where other times in your career you played the right side. Why was that such a benefit for you on the power play last year?
Hall: It was something we started tinkering with at the end of the 2017 season. At the start of last season our PP coach, Geoff Ward who is now in Calgary, put me there and it was hot right off of the start. We had a great power play, I think we were 25 percent or so for the first few games and it was going really well. I felt I was the most comfortable there. It’s my left wing that I’m used to coming down the ice with the puck on that side a lot. I have had so many reps over the course of my career that when I was on the power play it seemed pretty natural to me on the left side. We have a lot of weapons on our power play, specifically on my unit. Kyle Palmieri has a great shot, Travis Zajac seems to win every one-on-one battle he has, and he’s great on faceoffs, and Will Butcher had a great year for us. That was primarily our power play unit last year, and we had great chemistry with Kyle and me both on our strong sides.
You’re starting to see a lot of power plays in the league use that format, it seems to be not only good for scoring goals, but just getting pucks back. Everyone is keeping it on their forehands so they can come down on pucks on the wall a little bit better. It seemed to really work out and hopefully that is the same this year.
Strudwick: That really is interesting because I remember I was the same as a penalty killer. It’s a lot easier when you don’t have that threat of a real shot with your stick on the inside rather than on the outside of the boards. And you’re right, a lot of teams do use it. So as a shooter, is it a different angle, do you have to get a little bit higher up on the wall to set up on that half wall rather than below the hash marks?
Hall: Yeah, the thing is when you are coming down with the puck on your strong side you are in a position to shoot and pass at the same time, where if you’re on the other half wall, on your one-timer side, it’s a little bit different to pass. It’s a little bit more awkward and you have to kind of switch your body around and it kind of telegraphs the passer a little bit more.
When you do have the puck on your strong side it seems like there are more options open, and like I said, I just always felt more comfortable playing left wing for so long. We seem to work a lot of different shots into it. If I was coming down on my strong side, I’d have the guy in front screen on the short side and then as I was about to shoot it he would move out of the way. There are a lot of different things you can do with a shot coming down that way and we seemed to have success with it last year.
Gregor: When you’re attacking five on five it’s always about speed, whereas the power play often slows down and it’s a skill to play a little slower. Did you practice that more recently because you seem to be a better player at a slower tempo than you had been before?
Hall: Yeah I think just getting used to a spot, getting used to a position but certainly playing slower. Sometimes on the power play you think it might be time to take a shot because you moved the puck around a number of times, but that isn’t always the case. As a unit we worked on taking good shots and purposeful shots and not just kind of throwing the puck away to shoot it.
But yeah, there is definitely a skill to playing on the power play. I know a lot of people think it can kind of be just blind luck, but to be a good power play player, you see the same guys year after year up there at the top power play points, because they are so good at playing in small areas and so good at the little skilled plays that really keep plays alive. I seem to be a bit better at that after struggling earlier on in my career and even last year. I feel I’ve improved making the small, skilled plays. I did work on it in the summer of 2017 and it helped.
Gregor: So what did you work on this summer? Was there an area of your game where you felt you needed to improve?
Hall: There wasn’t one specific area. If anything I tried to work on my one timers and just getting pucks off as quickly as possible. I learned just specifically to my game that I don’t really have an over powering shot, like a Patrick Laine or Alex Ovechkin. So for me the best way to beat goalies is to get my shots off as quickly as possible. If I watch my goals from last year, a lot of them were quick shots, a lot of them were shooting before the goalie was able to get set and naturally what I tried to work on even more this summer was just more the one timers as much as I can.
But goalies are so good now that the best chance to beat them is with a quick release or a surprise shot. So that was my focus throughout the summer, as well as getting stronger and bigger and all of that. But the one timer and just being as healthy as possible coming into the season was my focus this summer.
Strudwick: We have a lot of kids who listen to the show ( on TSN 1260) so can you explain how do you go about getting or working on that quick release whenever you’re on the ice?
Hall: Well for starters whenever you’re taking a shot try hard to not set your feet and take the shot, just really try to shoot in stride as much as possible. We do a lot of drills where they’re knocking your stick in front and you’re trying to get it away as quick as possible. I feel the best thing I’ve been able to do is when the goalies are doing drills in practice, getting out there and shooting at them. It’s all increment stuff, you get the puck on your stick and try to get it off as quickly as possible. Reading off puck drops, you want to get the puck off of your stick as quick as possible when the goalie is not in position. It is timing and learning to gets shots off quickly from different positions. It is something you really have to think about and focus on, because the tendency is to take as much time as you want to get the puck where you want, but often it is best to get the puck off as quickly as possible.
Strudwick: Well Hallsy I have to give you credit. I know when we played with each other I gave you a hard time, it was your first year. You weren’t a multi-goal scorer like I was — you know, multi seasons where I had multiple goals — and now it looks like you’re on pace to probably beat me, even if I count Junior. So congratulations buddy. Offensively you’re definitely a better player than I ever was.
Hall: Thanks Struds (laughs), that means a lot coming from a sniper like you.
A nice little tip from Hall to young players regarding shooting. It is great when players explain small, subtle aspects of their game and how it leads to success for them.
Hall’s comments regarding the powerplay and getting pucks back correlates to the Oilers. We focus a lot on the skilled plays on the PP, which are crucial of course, but the dirty work is still what leads to the goals. It was interesting listening to him discuss how being on his strong side allowed him, and the Devils, to get pucks back. I felt the Oilers inability to retrieve pucks on the PP last year was a a major issue. If that improves this season, they will have more possession time and it should lead to more PP success. There is no question the Oilers have enough natural skill on their powerplay, but Hall is a prime example of how even the best players have to evolve. He learned how to be more effective playing a slower tempo on the powerplay.
Hall and McDavid have a good relationship, but both are very competitive. It is unique for a season opener to include the previous two Hart trophy winners and you should see some great plays from both players tomorrow. McDavid wants to win, he wants to make the playoffs, and he also wants to recapture the Hart trophy. He will be fired up for the season opener.