Photo via PuckProse
The city of Buffalo was ripe with excitement this past year, but not solely because of the Super Bowl aspirations the gunslinging Buffalo Bills possessed.
No, the Buffalo Sabres also garnered reason for optimism regarding playoff chances heading into the new season, dark horse or otherwise.
Despite amassing only 68 points and finishing sixth in the Atlantic Division during the shortened 2019-20 campaign, the team’s upside certainly was noticeable, even to hockey casuals. Star forward Jack Eichel was quickly making his case as one of the premier centers in the entire sport. Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson were top-six skaters with scoring capabilities at even strength and on the man-advantage. The defense and goaltending were young, but capable. Then, of course, there was head coach Ralph Kreuger, who was hungry to finally transform Buffalo back into a winning culture with a postseason-caliber team.
This was all before the team added Taylor Hall to the mix.
Ever since his 93-point (39 goals, 54 assists) Hart Memorial Trophy campaign during the 2017-18 season, Hall has been more pedestrian in regard to overall point production. In the two following years leading up to the 2020-21 season, the former first-overall pick has averaged less than 14 goals and 32 assists per season. While this would be adequate enough for supplementary skaters, it would not be seen as the kind of production one would expect from a former MVP.
Such was the reason why the New Jersey Devils inevitably traded the forward to the Arizona Coyotes during the 2019-20 season without extending him through their rebuild. Such was the reason Arizona did not make more traction in retaining his services at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, too.
The reason Buffalo acquired the 29-year-old on a one-year flier for approximately $8 million, however, was not to put up MVP numbers, but to reinforce Eichel and Co. with solid production as a top-six forward as opposed to the top forward.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, the addition of Hall has not been the slam-dunk bargain they once thought they were receiving when they made the deal official on Oct. 11. While the Sabres (6-19-4) certainly have more problems to hash out than Hall alone, the forward has not been the difference maker to move the needle in Buffalo’s favor, even if the end result would only be a moral victory.
To see why this is the case, let’s dig into Hall’s production up to this point of the season. In 29 games played, Hall has accumulated only 16 total points (two goals, 14 assists). Within those 29 games, Hall has collected a point or more in only 11 of those games. Of those 11 games, Hall has only tallied four multi-point performances. For comparison’s sake, through 29 games played during his Hart Memorial Trophy season, Hall had 17 games with at least one point and eight games with at least two. Sure, one could chalk up this production as another relatively slow start, but even still, it was not as slow as this.
Digging deeper into Hall’s influence with the puck on offense and defense continues to show the underperformance. Despite being a supposed mainstay on the top power-play unit, Hall has only amassed six total power-play points (one goal, five assists). Even if Hall was never seen as a premier skater on the man-advantage (his career-high in power-play goals is 13) his overall presence on the ice has been confusing. How so? When looking at Hall’s Corsi For Percentage (which looks at the percentage of time the team was controlling the puck with the skater in question on the ice, with 50 being average), his 54.1 CF% is currently a career high, with his next highest mark coming during the 2018-19 season (53.8%).
On paper, this would seem like a good starting point toward some production being not too far off in the distant for Hall. This, however, has simply not been the case – although Buffalo has controlled the puck more with Hall on the ice, he simply has not been getting shots off. When looking at Hall’s shooting percentage (which looks at a skater’s overall percentage of shots on goal that end up as a goal scored), his 2.8 S% is a career low, with his next lowest mark coming during last year’s shortened season (6.9%). Add in the fact that Hall’s -18 plus-minus (+/-) is also a career low, and you have a skater that, despite controlling the puck more with his fellow line mates, has simply not been producing anywhere near an average mark, let alone a solid or MVP-caliber one.
Now, the obvious must be mentioned again. Buffalo’s problems have been much more abundant than just Hall alone. Injuries, goaltender inconsistencies and a coaching staff shuffle (which includes the firing of Kreuger) has left a once promising Buffalo team in shambles.
Hall, however, has not helped ease the transition with production that could warrant some potential for a rebound season.
Excitement was certainly in the air regarding the Sabres, especially when the team brought in the forward on a lottery ticket of a contract in the grand scheme of things.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, the ticket has been a scratch.