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Should the Canadiens target Taylor Hall in free agency?

The Canadiens still hold a sizeable chunk of cap space, so it’s worth wondering about the biggest name on this year’s market.

Nashville Predators v Arizona Coyotes - Game Three Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Following the acquisitions of Jake Allen and Joel Edmundson, CapFriendly projects the Montreal Canadiens to have about $10.2 million in cap space heading into the 2020 off-season. They still have some question marks on the restricted-free-agent front with Max Domi and Victor Mete, but they stand to be one of the bigger budget teams.

Allen and Edmundson fill their own important needs, but the Canadiens as it stands have yet to acquire the one thing they sorely lacked throughout last season. They have yet to actuire some top-tier scoring talent.

As far as this year’s free agents go, it’s about impossible to think of a bigger name than Taylor Hall in that regard.

There will be plenty of suitors for his services, should he decide to leave Arizona, and Montreal just may be one of them. So we took a very Canadiens-focused look at what Hall brings to the table, and what it might take for the Habs to lure him to theirs.

Tale of the tape

If you only looked at Taylor Hall’s Eliteprospects page, you might think that the winger is a pure-skill player who dominates through a repertoire of feints. But while Hall does show finesse, he has more in common with the Habs compact-size bulldozer, Brendan Gallagher, than with a playmaking winger like Mitch Marner.

The former Hart Trophy winner’s game is based on pace, pressure, and getting inside — three elements at the core of Montreal’s team identity.

Hall wants the puck. When he doesn’t have it, he hunts it back. He doesn’t angle opponents to the boards and strategically reduce their space to attempt a steal. Hall is not Mark Stone — he lacks that kind of patience. The winger closes the distance that separates him from opposing carrier at full speed; he charges at them, like he wants to skate through them.

Even at 29-year-old, Hall remains a better skater than most of his NHL counterparts due to strong body mechanics. He bends his limbs at optimal angles and seems gifted with an innate explosiveness that, baring injury, should still give him the edge over opponents for a number of years.

But more than speed, balance, and acceleration what separates Hall from his competition are skating habits.

The winger plays the game at a high tempo and that pace can sometimes elevate the ones of teammates, too. He keeps his feet moving at all time; he receives inside crossovers and lateral slides to separate from defenders on the walls, darts in open spaces to support the play, and uses creative rush patterns to pierce through neutral-zone traps.

In Montreal, a team filled with straight-line rushers, the winger would be a breath of fresh air. His ability to attract and manipulate defenders with changes of speed or directions to gain the zone could transform the Habs offence. Instead of strictly relying on quick counter-attacks —or catching the opposition off-guard in odd-man rushes — the team could start generating more scoring chances against set neutral-zone defences. Something they had trouble accomplishing against the disciplined Flyers in the playoffs.

Hall also brings another element that Montreal (just like all other team) needs: inside offence. With the puck, the winger recognizes and attacks seams to the slot. If defenders don’t close their gap quickly enough on him along the walls, he can roll away from them and break in the middle of the ice.

Away from the puck, the ex-39 goal scorer reads teammates well. He knows where they will look next for an option and how he could best position himself to quickly release on net, tip shots, or slam in rebounds. Again, his offensive game is based on movement; Hall rarely stays in one place for an extended period of time. He conserves speed to move first on loose pucks and to readjust his positioning to support the next play.

Hall can also set up plays, but as a passer, he is at his best when teammates give him predictable options — like going net-front after entering the offensive zone. Vision and deception don’t really define Hall. On the other hand, players whose strengths are those elements can usually complement the winger quite well.

At the top of his game, Hall is an exciting player to watch. He adds intensity and both hard and soft skills to his line. The issue with signing him is his anticipated decline. And as he tends to run head first into plays with little concern for his safety, that decline might come abruptly at some point in the near future.

By the numbers

With the amount of times the Canadiens lost one-goal games last season, they could have been a playoff team — not of the COVID-19 play-in variety — with a little more scoring help. They were one of the stronger possession teams in the league last year, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t put the puck in the net.

The numbers show that Hall can absolutely help them in terms of generating scoring opportunities.

The numbers agree with the tape; not only does Hall drive offense, he does it in high percentage areas near the net. The heat map shows him doing the bulk of his work in areas that the Canadiens — at least most not named Brendan Gallagher — often struggle to get to. As long as you can get him into the offensive zone, he would absolutely make this team more dangerous.

Picture if you will, a line with Hall, Nick Suzuki, and Gallagher. Suzuki’s playmaking, Hall’s versatility, and Gallagher’s smash-mouth style would make a very difficult unit to contain. There’s no doubt that the Canadiens can find a fit for Hall offensively, even if they don’t decide to go with this hypothetical trio.

The defensive numbers are a concern, but you have to wonder if the Canadiens care about that in the short term. They need scoring, not for him to replace Phillip Danault or become a Selke Trophy candidate. They have other players who do the heavy defensive lifting, so they can afford to put him in a position to do what he does best.

But the aforementioned possibility of rapid decline is perhaps more imminent than one might like in his case.

Evolving Hockey

These graphs paint the picture of a player who isn’t just prime for decline, he is declining. His GF/60, xGF/60 and CF/60 are all trending down over the course of the last three years. If this trend is to continue, you have to wonder if it is wise investing a good chunk of cap space in him since you’d be hoping he can improve your team’s numbers in these categories.

A possible explanation for the 2019-20 numbers is that the Devils were abysmal all year, and then he had to adjust to new surroundings in Arizona after being traded. But as mentioned, his playing style lends itself to the possibility of rapid decline, so it is also entirely possible that this is just the beginning of that slide.

Logically, if you place him in a situation like the hypothetical trio with Gallagher and Suzuki, he could get right back to where he was in his Hart Trophy season. But with the legitimate concern over possible decline, the Habs will want to pay close attention to the most important question when it comes to signing a player like Hall...

What is the cost?

We explored the possibility of trading for Hall during the regular season, before the Habs fell into lottery territory. He still fills the same pressing need, but Marc Bergevin still needs to mind the cost of acquisition.

There will be no shortage of teams interested in his services, and with that comes a bidding war that will see some offers that a soon-to-be 29 year-old will have a hard time refusing in his last chance to cash in on his career.

The Canadiens will have Brendan Gallagher, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia, and Jeff Petry needing contracts at the end of next season. Nick Suzuki will be up as well just one year later. If you’re signing Hall, you’ll likely have to be prepared to see some combination of these players heading elsewhere.

They have a young core, a goaltender that most players still believe is the best in the world, and Hall could immediately make them a threat in the East. The big question is what their GM would be willing to offer, and if the promising situation in Montreal is enough to put them ahead of established contenders.

Marc Bergevin has always been protective — at times to a fault — of his cap space. I can’t see him wading agressively into a bidding war for Hall when a number of the team’s current core players are about to line up for their turn at the negotiating table. But he’d be foolish to not at least make the call, show his cards, and find out if it could become a reality.

Hall and his agent are probably looking at the $9-10 million AAV range as their landing spot. But with the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million, and many teams reportedly facing ‘internal’ salary caps due to budgetary constraints, that may not be realistic anymore. He also had a lackluster year, so the stars just haven’t aligned for him to see Connor McDavid money.

As far as term is concerned, he probably wants to go as long as the CBA permits. However, with the decision to keep the cap at $81.5 million for three years, he could be wise to take something shorter and wait for it — as well as financially strapped teams — to recover and permit him to get something bigger.

For the Habs, I think anything from three to six years and under $8 million AAV would be fantastic. You could bump the AAV a little bit to make it a reality, but I’d avoid going over six years due to the legitimate concern of decline.

The Habs are one of the few teams that definitely won’t be facing any kind of internal cap, and with the actual cap space they’ve been holding for years, it would be nice to finally see them utilize it to make a splash.

I hope Bergevin shoots his shot, because considering the current state of the NHL, he just might have the best deal for Taylor Hall, that also works well for the future of the Canadiens.