Despite a prolific offseason, the New Jersey Devils find themselves at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and near the bottom of the NHL. That has led to speculation about what they will do with Taylor Hall who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. Over the past couple weeks, rumors started to leak that the front office was already listening to trade offers on the superstar forward. That came to a head over the weekend when the team held him out of two games in anticipation of a trade. That trade hasn’t materialized yet. And until it does, the Lightning should be one of the teams talking to the Devils about what it would take to acquire the former Hart Trophy winner.
This might seem like a hot take on the surface. Yes, the Lightning are stacked at forward and Hall will probably be costly. But philosophically, this is exactly the kind of move I think the Lightning should be pursuing.
Over the summer, the front office led by Julien BriseBois made some shrewd moves to clear salary cap space for this season. Part of that was trading J.T. Miller to the Vancouver for a conditional first round pick. Another part was trading Ryan Callahan to avoid having to use Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) this year. Those two moves in particular are what give the Lightning the flexibility to add a player like Hall.
By getting rid of Callahan’s contract and moving Miller, the Lightning not only got under the salary cap but also did so in a way that allowed them to accrue cap space during the season, which wouldn’t have happened had they kept Callahan on LTIR. That cap space has now accumulated to the point where they could take on Taylor Hall without needing to drop a ton of NHL money.
They would only need to send back a little over two million dollars in the deal. Mike Condon and his $1.325 million cap hit would be a good start as a stopgap for the goalie starved Devils. That contract paired with whichever players/prospects the Devils would be targeting would likely get close enough to making the money work that if the Lightning are offering the most attractive return, the teams could figure it out. Worst case scenario, the Lightning could up their offer slightly to get the Devils to retain the leftover amount of Hall’s salary, which would certainly be below the maximum retention amount of $3 million. BriseBois and Devils General Manager Ray Shero already made a trade this year when the Devils acquired Louis Domingue so they seem to have enough familiarity to make this work.
The first round pick from Vancouver gives them an asset to build a deal around. The Lightning still have nearly all of their picks in the next three drafts plus the extra first rounder from Vancouver. For the right player, they can afford to move one of those firsts along with a prospect.
And if Taylor Hall isn’t the right player, I can’t imagine who would be. He won a deserved Hart Trophy two years ago posting incredible numbers in his second season in New Jersey. That season followed two previous seasons where he was one of the best wings in the NHL. Last season was on pace to be the second best of his career based on Wins Above Replacement (WAR) but injuries derailed it. So far this season, he’s struggled. But the Devils whole season has been a nightmare and I don’t think a player who’s been one of the best in the league over the last 3-4 seasons suddenly forgot how to play hockey.
The following shows Hall’s impacts over the last three years according to regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) via Evolving Hockey.
Hall has been an incredible offensive play driver both in terms of expected goals and actual goals. His defensive impacts are better than expected. Add in that he scores points and he’s obviously one of the best wings in the NHL. In fact, he’s one of those players who’s so good that making the case for him being good is easy. Sometimes I have to write a lot of words to try to prove the value of a player. For Hall, every number aside from this season is great. He’s a special player.
But should the Lightning be trying to acquire him? For me, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. The point of creating cap space in season and acquiring extra draft picks is that those things give you the flexibility to pounce on opportunities. This is an opportunity that deserves pouncing.
No one expected the Devils to be this bad. Sure, there was always a chance that they might fall out of the playoff race and Hall would become available at the trade deadline. But him being on the market this early is a surprise. The Lightning are one of the teams positioned to take advantage. They did the work to make themselves an option in situations like this and they should be trying to make that flexibility pay off.
In terms of competitive cycle, the Lightning are right in the heart of theirs. They have several stars in their primes. Realistically, things are going to start getting hard for them this summer. They have an even worse cap crunch than last summer coming that could see them have to move out another valuable player or possibly even two. Last summer, they managed to compensate for the loss of Miller with bargain bin deals for Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk. I’m not sure they can count on things like that falling in their lap again.
The Taylor Hall option allows them another run with a stacked group. They obviously can’t re-sign him. But they do have the assets to get him and try to go full offensive juggernaut this year. And the longer this process drags, the better it gets for the Lightning. Every day gives them more accrued cap space making the deal easier to figure out from a financial perspective.
I realize this probably isn’t the conventional thinking but for me, this is a no-brainer. I’m not a fan of trading picks or prospects for marginal upgrades. I think the slow bleed of draft picks at the trade deadline to fill perceived immediate needs is one of the things that hampers teams’ ability to sustain success. But this isn’t that. This is the chance to add one of the very best players in the league to a team that has legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.
They have the cap space. They have the draft picks. They have the prospects. All they have to do is pick up the phone. And they should. Because if not, what’s the point of all that good work over the summer?
Well, this obviously isn’t a possibility anymore as the Devils traded Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. I’m going to leave the article up for the rest of the night because I still think the argument was worth making regardless of the outcome. The same logic would apply if another super high end player were to hit the trade market.