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Taylor Hall Raises the Bar for Himself, Devils in MVP-Caliber Season

Taylor Hall endured a rough start to life in New Jersey, but he's become a man on a mission and has finally hit the playoff stage as the leader of a rejuvenated team back in the postseason for the first time in years.

Taylor Hall is picturing a recent memory, unremarkable yet personally momentous. It was early last fall, a couple days into his second Devils training camp. Beneath clear skies and a brilliant sun, Hall was lounging on the outdoor pool deck of his high-rise complex in Jersey City, finally feeling settled after the June 2016 blockbuster that brought him there from Edmonton. His apartment was furnished, his car was registered, his state license obtained … so much life-cluttering “little crap” sorted out. He looked around, digesting the scene. “OK, this is normal,” he thought. “This is home.”

Wounded in the wake of the trade, a one-for-one swap with defenseman Adam Larsson, Hall had spoken with Devils general manager Ray Shero, who likened what Hall would experience leaving the Oilers–the organization that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009–to the death of a family member.

“I’m giving you one year,” Shero told him. “Then you’ve got to move on.” 

Even Hall will admit that the mourning period lasted until that time limit hit triple zeroes, no doubt worsened by New Jersey’s last-place finish and Edmonton’s run to the second round. Relocating was a yearlong adjustment too, since Hall knew almost none of his new teammates and absolutely nothing about the area. Shero looks back and laughs at how long he took to discover the tollbooth magic of EZ Pass.

Then came summer. Between a revamped training regimen and two illuminating meetings–not to mention a trip to Coachella with then-teammate Dalton Prout–Hall returned having rounded a personal corner.

“He came back on a mission,” coach John Hynes says.

He was thrilled when the Devils won the lottery and drafted Swiss center Nico Hischier. He was impressed when Shero signed veteran Brian Boyle and traded for winger Marcus Johansson. With Hynes and the rest of his staff also returning, “it just seemed like things were looking up,” Hall says. “Maybe we make the playoffs or we don’t, but we’re going to have an improved year. I had that feeling.” 

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Seven months after his poolside epiphany, the 26-year-old is sitting on a couch at Newark’s Prudential Center, slugging from a protein shake and side-eying NHL Network highlights on the television. He was correct, of course, and then some. The Devils have returned to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12 and will open against top-seeded Tampa Bay on Thursday night. Much of the credit belongs to a Hart Trophy-caliber, 93-point tour de force from Hall, who started the year believing that reaching 75 points would’ve counted as “really solid,” he says. “But you start playing better and better and you see, 'How far can I push this?'”

Into ending his personal Stanley Cup playoff drought after 529 regular-season games, apparently. And into rarified air along the way: From Jan. 2 to March 6, Hall recorded at least one point in 26 straight appearances, something only seven others–including some dudes named Gretzky and Lemieux–have done. His 38 points during that stretch alone would rank fifth on the Devils’ season-long scoring list, at once a testament to Hall’s external dominance and internal importance. Indeed, he can feel the love; at Patrik Elias’ late-Feb. jersey retirement, co-owner David Blitzer dreamt about holding a similar ceremony for Hall in 2038.

“This is his team,” Shero says. “He cares. I don't know if I could’ve said that last year. I don't know if he was all-in.”

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As the losses mounted last season–the Devils finished 28-40-14, their worst record in three decades, and were formally eliminated from playoff contention on March 25–so did the chatter. Six years in a Canadian market had steeled Hall against the usual cycle of fan fodder, but this was different.

“There were some people around me being like, ‘Hey, you should try to get out of Jersey. You should try to ask for a trade,’” he says.

So Hall called his dad. Steve Hall is a former CFL speedster who successfully switched to international bobsledding after retiring from the gridiron. When Taylor was 12, Steve had him taking pregame naps, drinking recovery shakes and warming up three hours prior to puck drop on the backyard rink.

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“I just always loved doing it,” Taylor says. “It never seemed like work.”

Today Steve serves as a sounding board for his only child, speaking before every Devils game, exchanging thoughts over text after. When Taylor relayed what his buddies had been saying, Steve offered his unfiltered opinion: “No. You’ve got a job to do. It’s time to get to work.”

“And he’s never been more right about anything there,” says Taylor.

Shortly after the season ended, Hall recounted this exchange to Shero over dinner and beers at Del Frisco’s in Hoboken.

“That was the beginning of our conversation,” says Shero, though the meeting eventually extended past four hours. As a Ducks-Oilers second round game played in the background–Shero had purposely picked his seat so Hall’s back would be turned to the TV–both men were blunt in their postmortems. Shero asked Hall to grade his overall performance as a percentage; the latter suggested 50, while the Devils GM estimated closer to 30, telling Hall that his body language and practice habits needed to improve for the betterment of the team.

“I just said we needed some better players,” Hall says.

“It’s coming,” Shero told him. “Do you trust me?”

“I trust you,” Hall replied.

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Upon returning from Coachella–according to Prout, the Drake and Skrillex shows were especially dope–Hall moved into a downtown Toronto apartment to spend the offseason with Andy O’Brien, the longtime trainer of Sidney Crosby. In years’ past Hall had always worked out in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario, under the supervision of his father, whose inventive programs included bobsled-based acceleration drills and catching mini footballs to train spacial awareness. But Hall wanted to skate and conduct on-ice skill work alongside fellow NHLers in the city.

It was there that Devils coach John Hynes flew in late May and met Hall for lunch on a sports bar patio near Air Canada Centre. Their chat also lasted multiple hours, but focused less on Hall than the team. Hynes solicited advice about scheduling practices, rest days, and video meetings. Hall told Hynes that he wanted to be pushed harder and called out on film if necessary. Even then, Hynes could sense an evolution in his best player.

“He has a lot of pride,” Hynes says. “And I think that affected him, that he was deemed not part of the solution in Edmonton. And I think it took a little while to set in that this was going to be a really good fit for him, that we had his back and believed in him, and we needed more.”

The Devils have gotten more from many sources. Shero held up his end of the bargain by finding better players, acquiring defenseman Sami Vatanen from Anaheim last November, grabbing speedster Michael Grabner and below-the-net dynamo Patrick Maroon before the trade deadline. Role players like Stefan Noesen and Blake Coleman have balanced out the lineup, as have Hall’s teenage linemates Hischier (20 goals, 32 assists) and Jesper Bratt (13, 22). When starting goalie Cory Schneider faltered, emoji king Keith Kincaid rushed to the rescue.

Then there’s Hall.

“I think that Taylor has been more important to our team than any one else is to their team this year,” Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy says.

Added Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who played for New Jersey last season: "He's the MVP of the league."

Devils winger Kyle Palmieri, whose 24 goals finished second to Hall’s 39, says "He's carried us all year. He’s turned the page. And that next page has been a good one in Jersey.”

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Early into the third period on Jan. 7, with the Devils leading 4-2 at the exact midway point of their ‘17-18 season, Hall was whistled for cross-checking after taking a wayward stick in the face and retaliating against Islanders forward Brock Nelson. It was a rare emotional outburst from a normally calm presence, leading Hynes to ask Hall the next day what happened. Apologizing for the penalty, which led to a power play goal that sparked an Islanders comeback win, Hall explained that he was feeling extra “wired” lately. After all, he had never been in playoff contention that late into a season before.  

Granted, no one expected the Devils to contend for anything but ping-pong balls this spring. Which explains their ubiquitous NEW JERSEY DEVILS VS. EVERYBODY slogan, plastered onto T-shirts and employed as a rallying cry. The roster began to gel during during a two-night training camp trip to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where players ate lunch with cadets, listened to a Navy SEAL tell combat stories and worked together to drag a giant boulder up a mountainside. Early in the season, a bowling tournament was held at West Edmonton Mall. Captain Andy Greene hosted the Super Bowl party. Hall enjoys a card game called 10 Up 10 Down that he and a small group play relentlessly on the road.

The camaraderie reminds Hall a bit of the young Oilers, flush with high picks and hoping to revitalize a proud franchise that had fallen on hard times.

“That was the feeling we had back then, we’re going to build something great,” he says, “and it didn’t work out.”

Hall was not the only collateral damage–Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle were also shown the door–but the criticism that he bore reminds him of another modern success story.

“If there’s one guy I could look at and be like, that’s a pretty cool storyline, it’s Phil Kessel,” Hall says. “The amount of s--- that he took in Toronto, and he goes to Pittsburgh and wins two Cups, I thought that was pretty cool. It’s not like I’m going to be Phil Kessel, but you know what, people were wrong about this guy. Not that people were going to be wrong about me or whatever, but it’s a nice story to just have out there. It’s a little bit relatable, for sure. He took a lot of s---. I took some s---. And he has two Cups. I don’t have any Cups yet. But hope so soon.”

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Tampa Bay presents a tough first test, but Hall is already thinking beyond whatever happens over the next two months. He knows that New Jersey has ample cap space and expiring contracts, plus a cache of young players still years from their primes. He also knows that merely making the playoffs won’t cut it in ‘18-19.

“As a team we have 95 points, as a player I have 93,” he says. “People are going to expect our team to have more points next year. And they’re going to expect me to have the same or more. You’ve got to find a way to do that, right? It’s a good problem to have, for sure. I’m excited for that challenge. I think our team’s ready.”

It is his team now. At one point Hall told Hynes that he thought the coach was being unjustly hard on certain players and asked for a looser leash. When Grabner was struggling to adjust after getting traded from the Rangers, Shero texted and asked him to intervene. On the ice, Hall remains the same old even-strength possession monster whose lateral speed ties defensemen into pretzels, but his power play points drastically improved from 15 to 37 from last season, “a crazy difference” that he attributes to greater patience with the puck.

“He just doesn’t try to blow it past the goalie every time,” Hynes says. “He’s added more deception to his game. A year ago, he’s either scoring, missing the net, or it’s in the goalie’s chest. Now he’s more unpredictable.”

It is his home now, too. He enjoys eating breakfast unbothered at his favorite neighborhood cafe, or taking the PATH train to walk around lower Manhattan, blending with the mid-20s finance bros.

“All my buddies are just starting jobs and whatnot, just graduating from university,” he says. “I’m sure I look like one of them.”

Obviously, that is not the case around the office. Last Friday, less than 24 hours after the Devils clinched their playoff berth with a win over Toronto, Hynes and Shero attended an all-hands meeting at Prudential Center, thanking marketing and ticketing staff members for their work. As he was wrapping up, Shero mentioned that one other person wanted to offer some appreciation. And when Hall walked through the door, the entire room broke into chants: