The upcoming crop of unrestricted free agents haven’t even had the chance to speak with interested parties yet, let alone put pen to paper, and already the spotlight has temporarily shifted to one of the top stars who will be eligible to hit the open market come July 2020.
On Monday, a report surfaced that Devils star Taylor Hall, who won the Hart Trophy in 2017-18 after powering the team’s offense and almost singlehandedly willing New Jersey into a post-season berth, isn’t interested in inking an extension with the organization the moment he becomes eligible to do so next month. However, in a follow-up interview Hall’s agent, Darren Ferris, told told NHL.com's Mike Morreale that there has been regular communication with New Jersey GM Ray Shero and that the decision regarding an extension with the Devils was Hall’s to make when he was ready, adding “there's no pressure into making it.”
That Hall is going to take his time making this decision is not at all surprising. He said as much during his exit interview following the end of New Jersey’s regular season. He noted that he wants to talk to those around him, see what the Devils do in the off-season, that he has a desire to play in the post-season and that there’s only so much patience a player his age can have. Or, in his words: “Father Time is undefeated. You only have so many years left in this league. So, for me to be probably halfway done my career, at least, and to have only played five playoff games is disappointing, so you want to try to make up for that.”
Taking all of that into consideration, not to mention Hall’s own words, you can see where some of the concern might be from the Devils’ perspective, why some in New Jersey might be starting to get the feeling that he might want to walk. Has Hall had success with the Devils? Personally, as in as an individual, he has. From a team standpoint? Not so much. New Jersey took a 25-point step backwards year-over-year, and after earning a playoff berth last season, the Devils finished only eight points clear of last place in the NHL this season. A quick look at the current New Jersey roster suggests that this isn’t a team built to win next season, and Hall himself noted that there are certain areas of the roster that lack talent. There are undoubtedly reasons why Hall would consider testing the open market, and more than a few of them.
But what one should also take into consideration is what Hall said immediately after expressing his dismay over one playoff appearance in his thus-far nine-year career: “You also want to be cognizant of the process and not go chasing after the wrong situation.”
And maybe it’s with that in mind that the Devils stand a better chance at persuading Hall to stick around. In speaking with media in April, Hall said he was looking to see how New Jersey would go about improving over the course of the off-season, be it through the draft or free agency. And while there’s no knowing yet what will come of the signing period – though one would assume the Devils are going to pursue upgrades on the blueline and stability in the crease – what we do know is that one of Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko is coming New Jersey’s way, more likely the former than the latter, as a result of the Devils winning the draft lottery.
For argument’s sake, and so we no longer have to list both top prospects, let’s say the Devils do indeed add Hughes, who is considered a shoo-in to make an NHL roster next season and a prospect some consider a lock to contend for the Calder Trophy next season. In doing so, New Jersey has laid down a foundation of Hughes and Nico Hischier at center, and if winners are built through the middle, that’s one heck of a start for the Devils.
Beyond the combination of Hughes and Hischier, though, the Devils also have one of the most well-stocked cupboards of any team in the NHL. In The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019, New Jersey’s group of prospects were ranked ninth in the league by a panel of scouts, with Ty Smith, Jesper Boqvist and Michael McLeod among the position players expected to be regular NHLers by the 2020-21 campaign. Add to it some youthful on-roster talent such as Will Butcher and Damon Severson, and there are pieces in place – albeit pieces that will need supplementing – that can help make the Devils a consistent playoff contender in the near future.
There’s no certainty Hall would head to a team with the same foundation or one built for sustained success if he tested the market, and chances are that given his potential to ask for a contract in the double-digit millions, the teams that would be able to offer him such a deal next summer would do at risk of hamstringing their depth in order to allocate roughly one-eighth of their total cap space to a top-tier forward. Add in other cap commitments and the money available to build around Hall stands to be scant. But that’s not exactly a problem facing the Devils, who, at present, have $35.6 million in projected cap space for next season and nearly another $20 million, Hall’s contract included, set to come off the books ahead of the 2020-21 season. That puts New Jersey in the unique position to be able to afford a $10-million cap hit for Hall, particularly given Hischier is likely in line for a reasonably priced second contract, be it a bridge deal or otherwise, and Hughes, once a potential Hall extension kicked in, would be in the second year of his entry-level pact.
So, does Hall test the open market? Maybe he wants the experience, maybe he wants to see what’s out there and maybe he does, when the times comes, decide that his best opportunity is elsewhere. But don’t for a second take Hall’s hesitation as a sign that he’s as good as gone. New Jersey has plenty to offer, and the Devils will assuredly do everything they can to give him reasons to stay.
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