It’s not often that a former Hart Trophy winner is the hottest item on the trade market. But with the unexpected scratching of the New Jersey Devils’ Taylor Hall before Friday night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, social media was set ablaze about a looming potential trade. Add in John Shannon’s reporting that the St. Louis Blues and the Arizona Coyotes were the two most likely destinations, and you had the recipe for a legitimate Twitter firestorm in St. Louis.
There’s no question that a player of Hall’s caliber would make the Blues better. There are few wingers more dynamic in the league, and he would immediately become the most-skilled forward in a group sorely missing the injured Vladimir Tarasenko. But with the rumored cost of the potential move, does the acquisition make sense for the defending Stanley Cup Champions? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
Why is Hall Available?
For those who might not understand why a Hart Trophy winner like Hall is on the trading block, let’s take a look at the history. The Edmonton Oilers shocked the world when they traded Hall one-for-one for Adam Larsson back in June 2016. And while Hall didn’t immediately set the world on fire in his new home, he had a career season in his second attempt with the Devils, single-handedly carrying the team into the playoffs and winning the Hart Trophy in the process.
Unfortunately, injury ruined the following 2018-19 season. The Devils didn’t get an honest evaluation of their team with their best player on the shelf most of the season, and so they entered the offseason as unknowns, but with the first overall pick in hand. With it, they selected Jack Hughes, who, along with Nico Hischier, the 2017 first overall pick, figures to be the core of their team going forward.
With Hall in the final year of his contract, general manager Ray Shero had two choices. On the one hand, he could recognize that he was a fleeting commodity, trade the final season of his contract for a haul, and rebuild around Hughes and Hischier. Alternatively, he could go all-out in an attempt to woo Hall and convince him to remain with New Jersey for the rest of his career.
Shero chose the latter route, grabbing P.K. Subban in a blockbuster trade, adding Wayne Simmonds as a free agent, and eventually acquiring young Russian prospect Nikita Gusev via trade in a frantic offseason. The only flaw Shero didn’t address was goaltending: he hoped a healthy Cory Schneider and an emergent MacKenzie Blackwood could provide enough to keep the Devils competitive.
Shero miscalculated. Simmonds and Subban seem to have aged past their prime, Schneider wasn’t healthy and was ultimately waived, and Blackwood wasn’t ready to pick up the slack. The Devils currently have the league’s third-worst team save percentage (.886), and the second-worst goals against average (3.42) and goal differential (minus-36). Earlier this month, the Devils fired their head coach, John Hynes.
Now, the need for a rebuild is apparent, and the likelihood of Hall’s remaining is almost nill. Therefore, Shero’s decision was made for him. A Hall trade is inevitable, and with the news that he was a healthy scratch on Friday night and again tonight against the Coyotes, the hockey world believes it may be imminent. But does it make sense for the Blues?
Blues Intent on Repeating?
The Blues are a team in an interesting position. They won their first-ever Stanley Cup last season, the culmination of one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of the NHL. They entered the 2019-20 season with a free agent conundrum of their own, with Brayden Schenn (since extended) and captain Alex Pietrangelo (still unsigned) both on expiring deals. Apart from a late-offseason acquisition of Justin Faulk, a right-handed defenseman like Pietrangelo, their roster remained largely unchanged from the Stanley Cup Champions.
Unfortunately, once the banner was raised, things started to go wrong for the Blues, at least on the injury front. Ten games into the season, they lost Tarasenko, a regular 30-goal scorer, for possibly the entire season. After him, other forwards like Alex Steen, Sammy Blais (who seemed on track for a 20-goal season himself), Zach Sanford and Oskar Sundqvist went down, though Sundqvist just returned and Steen is expected to tonight.
Now, the Blues sit in second in the Central Division with 44 points, but still without any certainty of Tarasenko’s healthy return this season. Even so, Elliotte Friedman has reported in his 31 Thoughts article that the Blues believe they can repeat and that fans should expect them to “go for it.”
What Would Hall Cost?
But what does going for it look like for the Blues? Is Hall the right fit? And most importantly, what will it cost to acquire such a high-value rental?
Reports suggest that the Devils’ negotiations with the Colorado Avalanche, another top suitor for Hall’s services, center on 2019 fourth-overall pick and top prospect Bowen Byram. Even with the explosive emergence of probable Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar, that would be a stiff price to pay for Hall with no guarantee of an extension in place. For the Blues, the obvious equivalent would be top prospect Jordan Kyrou, who returned to the NHL two games ago and who was 16th in Craig Button’s most recent ranking of NHL prospects.
For the Blues, a package involving Kyrou, or even second-best prospect Klim Kostin, should be a non-starter. They already surrendered a highly-valuable offensive prospect (Dominik Bokk) in the Faulk trade. Letting go of another so soon, even for a player of Hall’s caliber, would gut their once highly-ranked farm system.
Moreover, Kyrou is already in the NHL, and while he’s yet to make a significant impact, that time is coming soon. Trading five-plus years of control over Kyrou for half a season of Hall to chase the pipe dream of a Stanley Cup repeat simply doesn’t make sense for an injury-laden and fatigued Blues franchise.
But one wonders if the Devils could be convinced to take quantity into account? Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has made those kinds of trades before (he traded two roster players, a valuable prospect, and several picks for Ryan O’Reilly, and made a similar trade for Ryan Miller many years before that). The Blues have most of their draft picks, numerous good prospects beyond Kostin and Kyrou, a slew of young roster players, and one player the Devils might value more than most teams: Jake Allen.
Armstrong won’t pull the wool over Shero’s eyes: Allen has his obvious warts. But he is substantially better this season, has experience as a starter, has another year on his contract, and would be an inarguable improvement on the Devils’ current goaltending situation. He would be a perfect partner to come in and take some of the heat off a young prospect like Blackwood.
The Bottom Line: Acquire Hall… At the Right Price
Allen cannot center a package for a player like Hall, but he could be an interesting trade chip that other teams cannot offer. If Shero would consider a package consisting of Allen, a young roster player like Blais or Sanford, and a handful of lesser picks or prospects, the Blues should certainly take their chances on a Hall rental. There is no doubt interest: the Blues have pursued Hall in the past, in a trade for Kevin Shattenkirk which the defenseman blocked at the time.
Ultimately, it will be Shero’s decision, not the Blues’. Hall will have no shortage of suitors, and if someone is willing to offer an elite prospect like Byram, Armstrong will probably lose the sweepstakes. If Kyrou or Kostin is the necessary cost to acquire Hall as a rental, the Blues should take a pass. As good as Hall is, he’s only ever won one playoff game and the chances of repeating are too insignificant to mortgage the future.
But, Armstrong hasn’t lost many trades in his career. If he can devise a package that brings in Hall without surrendering Kyrou or Kostin, the Blues should certainly do it. It isn’t often you can add a former Hart Trophy winner to a Stanley Cup championship roster.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.