Taylor Hall is certainly not complaining about making $8MM this season. Considering that the flat salary cap has depressed the market to the point that only four unrestricted free agents have signed deals with an AAV of $6MM or more this off-season – and Hall is the only forward to do so – the talented winger is likely content with his pact with the Buffalo Sabres. For now, that is. Heading into the 2019-20 season, even $8MM seemed like a low cap hit for Hall’s next deal and no one would have guessed that he would settle for a one-year deal. This was not the free agent frenzy and massive long-term deal expected for the Hart Trophy winner. However, one year could make all the difference.
Hall, 28, is one of the few players in the NHL who should not be content with an $8MM valuation. The 2010 first overall pick, Hall has scored at a rate of .9 points per game over his ten-year career, including four seasons at over a point per game and no seasons below .74 since his rookie year. A five-time 20-goal scorer, including 39 tallies (and 93 points) in his 2017-18 MVP season, Hall is a proven scorer in the NHL. A player who has also proven that he can excel on poor teams in which he is the undisputed best player, Hall has managed all of this production through rebuilds with the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils. The ceiling is limitless of what Hall could do on a talented contender.
Given the New Jersey Devils’ rebuild status entering the 2019-20 season, Hall had long been speculated to hit the open market once his contract expired. The Devils pursued a contract extension with their star forward, but to no avail. Perhaps Hall’s injury-plagued 33-game season in 2018-19 played a role in the Devils reluctance to ante up or maybe it was Hall who decided he had done enough for rebuilding squads. Regardless of the reason, Hall was traded in December. However, rather than joining a legitimate playoff team, Hall joined the fringe Arizona Coyotes and again took on the responsibility of being the team’s best player. The result of the whole season was 52 points in 65 games, a strong season for most but a disappointment for Hall as a steep drop-off in per-game production compared to his prior two seasons.
With an injury dominating his 2018-19 campaign and poor results (by his standards) to show for 2019-20, Hall’s MVP status had taken a hit two years removed from winning the Hart. It showed on the open market, as teams were not willing to hand out a long-term, big-money deal to a player that they would not have hesitated to hand a blank check not long ago. The flat cap also didn’t help, as teams have been risk-averse this off-season and not willing to sacrifice cap space by getting into bidding wars. Hall still had multiple offers, but by all accounts they were one-year or short-term offers at below market value.
How does the superstar winger rebound? It begins with the team he decided to sign with. Although it seemingly came out of nowhere, Hall’s decision to join the Buffalo Sabres could prove to be a stroke of genius. Joining Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line, Hall with finally play with an elite center for the first time in his career. Eichel’s per-game scoring numbers have improved in each of his five NHL seasons and he has been a point-per-game or better for two years in a row. With Hall at his side, that trend will only continue. Barring an injury, both players have 100-point upside this season.
There is one factor that could interrupt the dynamic scoring potential of Hall and Eichel and that is a trade. Even with the dangerous duo, the Sabres are still unlikely to challenge for a playoff spot and Hall may find himself back on the trade block at the 2021 deadline. However, another smart move made by Hall and his camp was to get a No-Movement Clause on his one-year deal. Unlike the moves to New Jersey and Arizona that Hall had no say in, if a trade is made this year, it will have to be with his approval. Aware of now the deadline move to the Coyotes failed to help his market value, Hall will be careful to choose a team where he can continue to score while finally making a deep run in the playoffs.
Once he is finally a free agent once more, and almost certainly coming off a strong season barring unforeseen circumstances, Hall will also benefit from a market with less competing talent. The 2021 free agent class does not have an Alex Pietrangelo to overshadow Hall. Alex Ovechkin is the biggest potential name, but he will almost certainly re-sign with the Washington Capitals and if not will not command a major deal at 35 years old. Other top forwards include Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jaden Schwartz, Tomas Tatar, and veterans like Ryan Getzlaf, David Krejci, and soon-to-be Buffalo teammate Eric Staal. These are all fine players, but no one to rival Hall barring a breakout season. The defense and goalie markets are lacking any star players in their prime that could attract suitors away from spending on Hall.
Not only will he likely standout as the top free agent available, but Hall will also have more suitors who can afford his services. With more notice and time to plan for cap management, even a long-term, possibly double-digit AAV deal for Hall will be easier for teams to swallow. The need could be greater as well; the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft threatens to strip a number of teams of scorers and they may turn to Hall as the best possible replacement. Expansion also adds one more team to the mix, as the Seattle Kraken could not make a bigger splash in their first season than adding the free agent market’s biggest name.
And what about the possibility that Buffalo wants to keep Hall beyond this season? It may have been a different administration in charge, but the Sabres just recently showed a willingness to pay up for a player that they had invested in when they signed Jeff Skinner to an eight-year, $72MM contract after acquiring him via trade. While the Sabres may already have $19MM invested in Eichel Skinner per season for years to come, they were willing to include Hall to make that $27MM this season and might not shy away from $30MM+ per year for their top three forwards.
The future is bright for Hall one way or another. It may not have been the off-season result that he or anyone else expected at this time last year, but at this time next year Hall will very likely beginning the next stage of his career on a lucrative long-term deal. How he gets there will be one of the best stories to follow in the coming NHL season.