Buffalo Sabres: Taylor Hall and the Continued Playoff Drought

Taylor Hall #4 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Taylor Hall #4 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

Taylor Hall took a huge gamble when he signed with the Buffalo Sabres this past offseason.

The former First overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Taylor Hall has seen his stock rise and subsequently fall multiple times over the course of his career, ever since his Memorial Cup MVP days with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.

Coming into Edmonton, Hall was the first of the Oilers’ three consecutive first overall picks in the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Drafts, alongside Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Since then, while Hall has had his moments, it’s been an, as stated, up-and-down struggle for the 6-foot-1 winger, which has seemingly continued thus far with Buffalo.

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The Sabres’ continued struggles are not exactly breaking news by this point, having not been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2010-11, when Thomas Vanek was their leading scorer and Ryan Miller had just come off his first Vezina Trophy. The Sabres have been a frustrating team to watch since then to say the least, with often great first-halves leading into terrible end stretches that result in another missed postseason berth.

Even with the multiple new additions General Manager Kevyn Adams brought in, like Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, and Hall, the team is off to a slow start once more, lacking in offense, defense, goaltending, leadership, and, well you get the point. With a 4-6-1 record thus far, the Sabres’ slow start is a familiar sight for Hall’s few former teammates remaining in Edmonton, calling back to his start as a supposed future star.

Setting aside the Oilers’ questionable draft strategy of selecting the same player with each of their three First overall picks, Hall managed to be a continued bright spot in his first few seasons, on an Oilers team that struggled through lost season after lost season.

Managing at least 40 points in each of his first three / NHL seasons, Hall reached a high of 80 points (27 G, 53 A) over 75 games in 2013-14, on an Oilers team that finished last in the Pacific Division by a wide margin. In spite of a less than impressive -15 rating, it seemed as though Hall was finally ready to take the next step in his development and become a leader for a young and developing Oilers team.

Taylor Hall (4)
Buffalo Sabres left wing Taylor Hall (4). Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports /

Instead, injuries and a lack of veteran support around him resulted in Hall, despite continuing to post solid numbers, doing little to get the Oilers out of their postseason drought, even with a 65-point 2015-16 season.

With the Oilers looking to rebuild and restructure around perennial superstar Connor McDavid, after an impressive rookie season (in spite of injuries), Hall was traded to the New Jersey Devils in June of 2016, in a one-for-one trade for former Fourth overall pick Adam Larsson. While Larsson’s steady defensive play helped lead the 2016-17 Oilers to their first Playoff berth since 2005-06, Hall continued to struggle on a Devils team similarly lacking in support.

That was until the 2017-18 season. To those familiar with the modern-day NHL, the surprise, impressiveness, and quite frankly ludicrousness of Hall’s 2017-18 season is common knowledge by this point, with the Alberta native, figuratively, and, in a way, literally, exploding for 93 points (39 G, 54 A) over 76 games, leading the Devils in scoring by an insane 41-point margin.

Coupled with the surprise performance of backup turned starter Keith Kinkaid, and some offensive spark from former First overall pick Nico Hischier and top College recruit Will Butcher, Hall’s stellar year saw the Devils clinch their first Playoff berth since 2011-12 with a 44-29-9 record. Now being seen as the core of the franchise and the future of the organization, Hall was rightfully awarded the Hart trophy that season as NHL MVP and looked to finally be the franchise superstar Oilers fans had previously envisioned him to be.

Taylor Hall (4)
Taylor Hall #4 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images) /

After signing a one-year deal worth $8 million this past offseason, Taylor Hall’s rough start to 2020-21 is a familiar concept for the Buffalo Sabres.

Instead, just three seasons later, and Taylor Hall, in spite of some bright spots, has continued to be the oft-impressive, oft-frustrating player he’s always been. While he was off to a similarly red hot 37 points in 33 games pace in 2018-19, a nagging lower-body injury ended his season and, in a sense, also ended the season for the Devils, with the team stumbling to a 31-41-10 record, dealing with a juggling act in net and a lack of true offensive support aside from Kyle Palmieri.

Heading into 2019-20 as a pending UFA after the expiry of a seven-year deal worth $42 million, rumors began to circulate about Hall’s status as a potential trade candidate, as the Devils looked to possibly restructure their team around incoming prospects like Jack Hughes and second-year starter Mackenzie Blackwood.

In the end, the Arizona Coyotes surprisingly acquired Hall in exchange for a plethora of picks and prospects that included current Devils winger Nick Merkley. While an intriguing situation for a player looking to prove himself, Hall struggled on an offensively dry Coyotes team, posting 27 points (10 G, 17 A) over 35 games as a season suspension due to the Covid-19 Pandemic saved the Yotes from another missed postseason berth.

Now playing on a true prove-it deal for one-year at $8 million with Buffalo, Hall has similarly struggled to get his game going, in spite of the talent around him. Both Sabres and NHL fans in general are quite frankly getting tired of the Sabres’ lack of regular-season success, evidenced by a Twitter account counting the days since the team’s last Playoff appearance (seriously).

After breaking past his solid, if unimpressive start to his first three NHL seasons, franchise forward Jack Eichel has similarly struggled thus far this season after posting 82 and 78 points in 2018-19 and 2019-20 respectively. In spite of a potentially intriguing combination between him and Hall, the two have combined for just two even-strength goals, as Buffalo has potted just two goals total over their last three games (this was written prior to Saturday’s game against the New Jersey Devils).

Having just moved past a nightmarish front-office situation this past offseason that challenged Bell Media for the number of layoffs, the Buffalo Sabres seem lost once more, lacking in a true starter in net or someone to answer the call on offense. Jeff Skinner, the second-highest paid player on the team at $9 million a year, has just one assist over his first 13 games, being signed for six more years with a No-Movement clause to boot.

Next. Josh Bailey slowly getting back to Playoff form. dark

In an NHL season that has seen numerous teams get off to slow starts, Buffalo’s is sadly nothing new, evidenced by the growing frustration from a fan base that now yearns for the days of Dominik Hasek, Stu Barnes, and a lively and always entertaining Rick Jeanneret.

Despite being just three years removed from a Hart Trophy season, that seems like a similarly distant memory for Taylor Hall, who’s risky choice to sign a prove-it deal hasn’t paid off thus far. While the 2020-21 NHL season has just gotten underway, it seems as though its already a lost cause for the Buffalo Sabres, and while there’s hope he can turn things around, it appears as though Taylor Hall’s free-agency gamble could be destined for the same fate.