Taylor Hall came to Boston with a fascinating addendum to one of NHL’s most impressive résumés. He came with honesty. And candor. The kind of honesty and candor rarely acknowledged by athletes of Hall’s caliber — ones who trade as much on inner belief as their skills at skating, scoring, shooting or passing.
“I’m not the most confident hockey player right now,” Hall acknowledged in his introductory Zoom call, back on April 12. “Throughout this year, there have been a lot of struggles, and obviously goal scoring has been one of them. I have to find that part of my game back.”
In revealing how much he had struggled across a 37-game tenure in Buffalo, in sharing how much it wore on him to know his paltry two goals were so far away from his Hart Trophy-winning season in 2017-18, Hall spoke to how much he needed a change of scenery. In doing his part to make sure that change would happen in Boston, he also spoke to the growing role athletes themselves are playing in determining their future.
And there is no arguing he made the right call.
It’s hard to imagine the union going any better.
Hall, slipping into place on the Bruins’ second line alongside David Krejci and Craig Smith, quickly found “that part of his game,” scoring eight goals in 16 regular-season games and adding two more in the opening playoff series win against Washington. And the Bruins are the happy beneficiaries of his awakening, heading into Saturday night’s Game 4 against the Islanders with a 2-1 advantage in their second-round series. While Brad Marchand goes down as the Game 3 hero for his overtime winner and Tuukka Rask will be remembered as the true savior for his brilliance in goal, Hall was a no-doubt third star for his play on the Bruins’ first-period score.
It was enough that Hall set up Smith for the early strike, thus allowing the Bruins to quiet (somewhat, anyway) a raucous Nassau Coliseum. But it was the way he did it, with a ferocious backcheck and steal of the puck, with a heads-up pass to Matt Grzelcyk to get the puck back in the offensive zone, with a speedy recovery back to the wing to be in place for Grzelcyk’s return pass, and finally, with a laser of a pass right to the blade of Smith’s waiting stick.
It was the type of sequence that moved coach Bruce Cassidy to this assessment of Hall when asked whether anything surprises him about Hall’s game:
“I think early on I didn’t realize he’s a 200-foot player in terms of his backchecking, willingness to break up a play,” Cassidy said the day after that overtime win on Long Island. “He’s done that a number of times for us. He can really cover ice. He’s been excellent at that, not quitting on plays, coming back into our end to help keep the puck out of our net.
“When you watch a player on another team, especially a high-end guy, you’re usually looking at what he’s doing with the puck, not without it, so that part has been great for us. I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the right word. I’m pleased.”
Hall’s contributions have been many, not the least of which is joining with Smith and the always playoff-ready Krejci to take some defensive pressure off the outstanding Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak-Marchand top line, a challenge for opposing teams that has made both lines more potent. But the real joy in a deadline-day deal this successful is how happy it makes both sides. Remember, Hall was once the No. 1 overall pick in the entire draft, but as much as he has found individual success since first suiting up for Edmonton in 2011, this is the deepest playoff run of his career.
There’s a reason he OK’d a deal to Boston, content as he was to find a landing place that didn’t need him to be the sun around which every other player orbits, but rather one of the many planets lighting up the entire solar system.
“It has been [everything I hoped],” Hall said Friday morning. “It’s been a lot of fun, this group makes it enjoyable and I don’t think that anyone feels pressure coming into the games. We look to enjoy it, enjoy the atmosphere. It was a fun atmosphere [Thursday] night. That’s just the way we’re approaching things. One game at a time. I know that’s cliche, but it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves. They’re a tough team, they’re going to stay in every game, and I don’t think we can expect to have three-goal leads at any time in this series. They’re always going to be on us, in our face, making the game hard. That’s what makes playoff hockey fun.
“I think it has been everything I would have asked for as far as enjoyment in the playoffs. It’s great that we’re winning as a team and I think every line and every D pair and Tuukka, everyone is contributing, everyone should feel good about themselves. That’s a really good feeling. It’s not just one guy or one line. We’re all contributing and that’s a big part of being on this team.”
That’s a long way from the guy who only eight weeks ago described himself as a hockey player in need of a hug.