By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The story of Taylor Hall and the Buffalo Sabres always was an unusual one.
To sum it up: Who expected him to be here in the first place, and who thought he’d be gone so soon for so little?
Going back to last fall, the news that Hall had signed a one-year, $8 million deal produced equal parts surprise and puzzlement. Hall was a first overall draft choice in 2010 by the Edmonton Oilers. He jumped straight to the NHL, peaking with the Oilers in 2013-14 with 27 goals and 80 points. Hall was a very good forward, but not an elite one, in Edmonton.
Then came a trade to New Jersey. Hall had his best season in 2017-18, scoring 95 points. Somewhat curiously, that was good enough to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player – even though there were players with better numbers on teams that were better in the standings. (Alex Ovechkin, come on down.) Hall had injury problems after that, and in December 2019 the Devils dealt him to Arizona. Hall played out his contract and became a free agent. He needed to prove that he could become an elite player again. When the Sabres offered him a pile of money in a short-term deal that contained the chance to play for coach Ralph Krueger (friends from the Edmonton days), Hall took it.
The Sabres obviously thought that there was little downside in adding a top player. Maybe he could help the young players grow up, and be the difference between a non-playoff team and a playoff team. Besides, if things didn’t work out, Hall might be a nice addition for a contender at the trading deadline. The team’s fans couldn’t be blamed if Hall hadn’t apparently noticed what the Sabres had been doing for the previous decade. Hart Trophy winners usually don’t drop in the laps of perennially bad teams. But the signing gave those fans some hope.
Whether the move made sense from a hockey standpoint was another story. The Sabres had a crowd of young forwards who needed ice time – not to mention Jeff Skinner, who had gone from his best year to his worst year in a summer. Hall represented 20 minutes per game that couldn’t be handed out to those other players, so some skillful juggling of ice time was needed. A one-year potential rental was at best a curious strategy.
Slow start, slower finish
Hall finally had the chance to play for the Sabres once the season began in January. He had a goal and assist in his first game for Buffalo, and added three assists two games later. But then his next goal came on March 4, and that was it as a Sabre. In his last 20 games, Hall had one goal and six assists. Meanwhile, the rest of the team collapsed to the tune of 18 straight losses – mostly because of injuries to goalie Linus Ullmark and center Jack Eichel. In the middle of that, Krueger was fired – giving Hall one more reason not to want to hang around. He went public in saying he’d be open to a trade.
Ah, but how to make such a trade? Hall was in the midst of the worst season of his career, with no guarantee that he’d turn it around elsewhere. The forward had a big contract that was tough to swallow by teams without much cap room. Hall also had to waive a no-trade clause, which reduced the number of potential trading partners.
“The message from Taylor and his agent was (they wanted to see) if there was a way to put him with a Stanley Cup contending team, go get to the playoffs and win a championship,” general manager Kevyn Adams said at a Monday media briefing. “As we got to (Sunday) , when things heated up a bit, we got to a point where Taylor felt Boston was the team he wanted to go to. He thought it was the best fit, and contractually had that right to make that call. We focused on that.”
The final transaction was announced Monday morning. Hall and Curtis Lazar were sent to the Bruins for a second-round draft choice and forward Anders Bjork. Some fans reacted with horror that the Sabres didn’t get a first-round pick in the transaction. But think of it this way – if the situation were reversed, you wouldn’t give up a premium choice for a forward with two goals – especially when the leverage was in your favor.
Lazar revived his career here in Buffalo a bit. He’s no scorer, of course, but has some skills that can make him helpful as the 12th/13th forward. Bjork is a left winger who hasn’t been in double figures in goals with the same team in one season since turning pro. He did play for Sabres’ coach Don Granato with the USA Development Program. We can assume the swap of forwards had a little to do with making the dollars in the deal work out a bit better.
“We were able to accomplish a couple of things with the deal,” Adams said. “We got a draft pick that helps us in the future, and a player that we are excited about.”
Expected moves happen
Adams did the expected otherwise in his first trading deadline as a general manager. Eric Staal and Brandon Montour were headed for unrestricted free agency this summer, and they were moved for draft choices. That was an appropriate return under the circumstances.
The other potential UFA is Linus Ullmark, also known as one of the few bright spots of the Sabres’ season under the circumstances. He’s probably been the Most Valuable Player on the roster this season, and has shown that he can be a No. 1 goalie. The lack of a trade of Ullmark certainly demonstrated that Adams would like to see Ullmark in a Buffalo uniform for years to come, and Ullmark’s lack of a public trade demand probably reinforces that fact.
“We said all along we want Linus to be a Buffalo Sabre,” Adams said. “We feel good about where his game is at. We’ve been continuing to talk. I’ve spent time with Linus talking one on one, philosophically. That’s an important relationship to have with our players. We’ve had those conversations. The priority for us is to sign Linus, and he and his agent know that.”
Besides, the Sabres’ second-string goaltenders are 1-19-3 this season. Can you imagine what the rest of the regular season here would be like if Ullmark left, and an adequate replacement didn’t arrive as part of the return? We’ve had enough of that this season, thank you.
Ullmark’s status will have to wait a while for an outcome. But this day really belongs to Hall – a player who like Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly represented an interesting gamble that just didn’t work out for the Sabres. And how many other times has that sentence been written during the past decade?
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)