After shocking the hockey world by signing in Buffalo on a one-year, $8 million contract last October, Taylor Hall is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Based on how things are playing out in Buffalo, it seems likely that Hall will be traded. A big extension does not appear to be overly likely at this point. Currently at the bottom of the strongest division in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres are nowhere near a playoff spot and they probably don’t want to let him walk for nothing.

Mired in a playoff drought since 2011, the Sabres have already gone through a brutal rebuild and they likely want players who can help them sooner rather than later as a result. They’re probably not solely focused on acquiring draft picks to add players who can help them three or four years from now. They want to improve their roster for next season in order to give Jack Eichel the best chance possible at making the playoffs.

That could mean the Leafs are perfect trading partners for the Sabres. They aren’t going to play the Leafs this year, but they could end up back in their division (or conference) next year. In short, they would be happy to make the Leafs better this season, if it means taking something away from them in future seasons.

The Sabres are also desperate for help at center behind Eichel, as Eric Staal is both 36 years old and a pending free agent. Let’s just say that the upcoming free-agent class is not loaded with high-end centers that are racing to sign in Buffalo.

Frank Seravalli of TSN spoke about Hall’s availability here:

The key quotes in this video include:

  • “At this point, I don’t see a way that they don’t trade him at the deadline.”
  • “They may have to eat half of his $8 million salary in order to make it work.”
  • “I don’t think that a lot of teams around the league are thinking that Taylor Hall suddenly woke up, because of the situation in Buffalo, and forgot how to play hockey.”

Exploring a Hall for Kerfoot Trade

Alex Kerfoot of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Canadian Press

Alex Kerfoot would be a great fit in Buffalo for four reasons:

  1. The Leafs will need to send a contract back the other way if they acquired Hall. Kerfoot is pretty much the only player on the roster who would make any sense whatsoever.
  2. Kerfoot’s deal was front-loaded, so he only makes $2.7 million per year in actual salary after this season.
  3. He’s able to move to the wing if needed, so they have some flexibility if they want to play Dylan Cozens and someone else up the middle instead.
  4. Kerfoot is under contract through the 2022-23 season and could help the Sabres immediately. They don’t have to wait for him to develop.

My guess is that Kerfoot carries a similar trade value as Andreas Johnsson, for whom the Leafs were offered a second-round pick before they ended up acquiring Joey Anderson instead. Knowing the Leafs would need the Sabres to retain close to 50% of Hall’s contract to make this deal work, Kerfoot’s trade value alone is probably not quite enough to get that done. However, the Leafs could certainly add a little bit extra to this trade to get it over the finish line.

Taylor Hall is a damn good player — there’s no doubt about that. He won the Hart Trophy, for crying out loud, and was the league’s MVP more recently than Connor McDavid. Draisaitl won last season, Kucherov won the season before, and Hall won in 2018 — this is not exactly ancient history. Hall is 29 and boasts 575 points in 647 career games.

I don’t want to hear the “he’s not a winner” garbage. He’s put up points during his limited NHL playoff sample. He won the Memorial Cup twice in junior. He’s won five gold medals for Canada. Zach Bogosian entered the league two years before him and had ZERO career playoff games before his Cup run with the Lightning last season. It’s not Hall’s fault that the Oilers completely wasted the first six years of his career before trading him to another below-average team. He also single-handedly got the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils into the playoffs.

Not to belabour the point, but have you seen the rosters of those Oilers teams? Check these out (I’ll wait):

Hockey is a team sport. If you want to yell that individual players are “not winners,” go watch tennis or golf. Everyone said Phil Kessel wasn’t a winner, and then guess what? He won. Everyone said Alexander Ovechkin wasn’t a winner, and then guess what? He won.

As Leafs fans know better than anyone, it’s hard to win a playoff round. It’s close to impossible to win a playoff round when you play on the teams that Hall has played on.

In his final season in Edmonton, the Oilers outscored their opponents 57 to 53 when Hall was on the ice at 5-on-5. When Hall wasn’t on the ice, they were outscored 76 to 115. In the previous season, the Oilers outscored their opponents 36 to 34 when Hall was on the ice at 5-on-5. When Hall wasn’t on the ice, they were outscored 95 to 163 (!).

Hall then got traded to New Jersey, where the team outscored their opponents 38 to 35 when Hall was on the ice at 5-on-5 in his first season with the Devils. When Hall wasn’t on the ice, they were outscored 76 to 113.

I’m going to go ahead and guess that maybe Taylor Hall was not the problem.

How Good Is Taylor Hall?

Taylor Hall free agent
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Pretty damn good.

Since entering the league in 2010, his 5-on-5 point-per-minute production is pretty much identical to John Tavares’. He ranks 21st in this category out of 266 forwards with 5000+ minutes at 5-on-5 over that time, ahead of players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Filip Forsberg, Tyler Seguin, Mark Scheifele, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, and Jack Eichel. Since leaving the Oilers, his 5-on-5 expected goals for percentage is 53.5%, which is extremely impressive, and just ahead of Matthews and Marner.

Since entering the league, he sits just behind Tavares in Evolving Hockey‘s goals above replacement and is actually ahead of him on a per-game basis. He’s a fair bit behind Tavares in terms of expected goals above replacement, but he is still comparable to great players like Gabriel Landeskog and Jakub Voracek. Yes, he only has two goals through 21 games this year, but his 1.9% shooting percentage clearly isn’t sustainable.

He’s an elite transition player and an elite takeaway specialist. He’s consistently graded out well by play-driving stats such as Evolving Hockey‘s RAPM. He’s played at a 70+-point pace per 82 games over his career. He’s a first-line calibre, star forward who would have a chance to make Team Canada’s Olympic Team. Again, he won the Hart Trophy!

Hall could make the Tavares and Nylander line a force to be reckoned with. Tavares is a complete beast down low in the offensive zone, and pairing him with two of the best transition players in the game would put him in a position to succeed. Opposing top defense pairings would likely matchup against Matthews and Marner, leaving the Hall-Tavares-Nylander line to beat up on weaker competition. There’s a real chance that Hall would be the best player on that line — he’s that good.

Personally, I wouldn’t play Hall on the third line, but even that could be quite fun. As mentioned above, when Hall comes off the ice, his team usually sends AHL calibre forwards out there who proceed to get completely dominated. With the Leafs, Sheldon Keefe could instead throw the Matthews-Marner and Tavares-Nylander duos out there when Hall is on the bench.

All Leafs fans are happy with the team’s current third line. I think Hall would make far more sense in the top-six, but having him drive his own line is always an option. He obviously carries quite a bit of experience with that.

Hall’s Weaknesses

Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Taylor Hall carries some pretty significant weaknesses, ones the Leafs will certainly need to be aware of:

1. Boating safety

I take boating safety very seriously. Hall struggles in this area. It’s also worth noting that the city of Toronto is situated on Lake Ontario. Boating can be a terrific team-building activity, but this is a major weakness for Hall.

2. Hangman

Travel is a big part of an NHL player’s life. Because of this, fun games are often played to help pass the time. Hall clearly struggles with this game. Again, the Leafs will have to be aware of this.

What’s A Hall Trade Look Like?

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas
Photo: Canadian Press

The top rentals at the deadline tend to go for a first-round pick, plus another interesting prospect or two. Hall was actually traded as a rental last season, along with prospect Blake Speers, for a first-round pick, a third-round pick, Kevin Bahl, Nick Merkley, and Nate Schnarr. As part of the trade, the Devils retained 50% of his $6 million cap hit.

The price for Hall will be lower this time around for four reasons:

  1. He’s one more year removed from his MVP season.
  2. He’s off to a bit of a rough start in Buffalo, as he’s only scored two goals in 21 games thus far (though he has put 54 shots on goal).
  3. The Coyotes paid a little bit extra to acquire him in mid-December last year, so he ended up playing 35 regular-season games in Arizona, even though the pandemic ended up cutting the season short. Hall would be more of a “true rental” this season, especially if he has to quarantine for 14 days.
  4. It’s more of a buyer’s market this year, as some teams are not able to add salary due to their financial situations.

The Sabres would have to retain 50% of Hall’s cap hit in a trade with Toronto, just like the Devils did last season. As mentioned above, they would have to take Kerfoot back as well, but he probably has more value to them than a late first-round pick in a weak draft. In addition to Kerfoot, the Leafs have two young prospects in Filip Hallander and Joey Anderson who could possibly help the Sabres next season.

Kerfoot and Toronto’s 2021 first-round pick is probably enough to get a deal done. In fact, I actually think that’s a better package than what the Devils got for Hall last season. Perhaps the Leafs downgrade the first-round pick to a second-round pick and add in Hallander or Anderson instead. Given where the Sabres are at, I think they will be more interested in players and prospects rather than picks.

It’s also worth noting that Hall can control his own destiny as he possesses a full no-move clause. If he says that he’ll only accept a trade to a few teams, the Sabres don’t have much leverage here. If he says that he’s set on playing for Toronto, the Sabres might even settle for Kerfoot straight up. If he’s completely against going to a Canadian team due to the quarantine process, this deal is off the table completely. Hall has a lot of control here, but I’m willing to bet that he would jump at the opportunity to play in Toronto.

If other star forwards like Filip Forsberg, Johnny Gaudreau, or Tomas Hertl are available, the Leafs should certainly inquire about them. These players come with an extra year of control, and it’s worth paying a little bit extra for them as a result, even after considering the expansion draft implications. However, Hall is the most likely of this group to be moved and will cost the least. It’s easier to get a team to retain 50% of a player’s contract for half a season rather than next year as well.

Trading Kerfoot would hurt Toronto’s depth up the middle. They would be counting on Pierre Engvall to be their third-line center, and if he starts to struggle, the Leafs would have to find another alternative.

One option would be to move Travis Boyd up in the lineup and make Jason Spezza or Adam Brooks the fourth-line center. Another option could be to play Hall with Tavares, and make Nylander your third-line center. Joe Thornton carries plenty of experience at center as well and could always play there if needed. Alex Galchenyuk also has some experience at center, although that might be a bit of a long-shot at this point. Ultimately, I like the Hyman-Engvall-Mikheyev line so far and I’d be okay with taking the risk if it meant acquiring a player of Hall’s calibre.

Riley Sheahan could also be added to this deal to provide the Leafs with some extra depth. The 29-year-old isn’t much of a scorer, but he’s consistently posted strong defensive results by Evolving Hockey‘s RAPM over the years. He’ll be a free agent after this season, and given that he carries a $700k cap hit, the Leafs could simply put him on the taxi squad if he clears waivers.

Alternatively, the Leafs could always look to make another trade for a bottom-six center.

Final Thoughts

Taylor Hall, Toronto Maple Leafs trade target

We all know by now that the Leafs are looking to add a forward at the deadline, and they are probably willing to give up significant futures to do it. This is the best Leafs team that we’ve seen in years. They’re looking for a player who can make them an even bigger favourite to win the Canadian division come playoff time.

I like Mikael Granlund and I’m certainly interested in acquiring him, but Hall is simply a different calibre of player. The Leafs look great defensively, while their first line has been amazing up front. Pairing Hall on a line with Tavares and Nylander would make them a force to be reckoned with.

I don’t want to trade Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, Rodion Amirov, or Timothy Liljegren for a rental. However, I don’t think you’ll have to give them up — it’s not like the Coyotes handed over Victor Soderstrom or Barrett Hayton for Hall last year. If they need to be included, I’d focus my attention elsewhere and talk to the Predators about Forsberg or Granlund. A package of Kerfoot and a first-round pick seems more than fair.

I’m not a big fan of trading for rentals at the deadline unless the team is really damn good. I would have strongly considered trading James van Riemsdyk in his final season in Toronto, rather than letting him walk for nothing, as I didn’t see that Leafs team as a true Cup contender. However, this isn’t the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs. This is a team that just shut out Connor McDavid for three straight games with three different goalies and didn’t miss a beat when Auston Matthews was out of the lineup.

I also don’t want to hear that the Leafs are “good enough.” There’s no such thing. I don’t care if Hall has to miss a handful of games due to the quarantine process. With Taylor Hall inserted into this lineup, this team will have an even better chance to make a deep playoff run.

The Leafs already have three former first overall picks in Auston Matthews, Joe Thornton, and John Tavares. Why not add one more?

It’s time to push the chips in for a serious shot at the Stanley Cup.