As Taylor Hall sits on the sidelines for the next two-to-four weeks with a knee injury, the fourth significant wound of his young career, the time off might give him some time to reflect on his approach to the game. After all, Hall turns 23 next week and has a lot of productive NHL years ahead of him, assuming of course his aggressive approach to the game doesn’t cut his career short.
And therein lies the quandary for both Hall and his team. The Edmonton Oilers need Hall to be in their lineup every game, not three-quarters of them. He is emerging as the go-to offensive player and a leader on this young team and having him out of the lineup is an enormous blow. In fact, if this injury goes the distance or beyond, it’s not a stretch to suggest any hopes the Oilers have of making the playoffs this season will die.
But on the other hand, Hall’s devil-may-care attitude is part of what makes him such a great player and you don’t want to tame that. How do you tell a guy to stop going to the net so hard when going to the net and using his size is what makes him one of the best left wingers in the league today? (With Alex Ovechkin moving back to the right side, it’s a toss-up between Hall and Jamie Benn at the moment.)
Hall has been besieged by injuries, the latest of which came Saturday night when Chris Tanev of the Vancouver Canucks bowled Hall over on the way to the net before Hall’s right knee collided with the goal post. Some of Hall’s injuries have been because of youthful foolishness – his rookie season ended eight weeks early with a high ankle sprain he sustained in a fight with Derek Dorsett and he received a 30-stitch laceration because he wasn’t wearing his helmet during a warm-up. But it’s hard to blame Hall for the concussion he got when he fell and was accidentally kneed in the head by Cory Sarich or for needing shoulder surgery after being catapulted into the boards by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan Wilson.
Perhaps Hall might want to have a conversation with a guy like Wendel Clark. The Toronto Maple Leafs icon established himself as a fan favorite and NHL star by adopting a take-no-prisoners attitude, but it was also that approach to the game that wore his body down badly, caused him to miss enormous amounts of time and put a premature end to what might have been a Hall of Fame career had he stayed healthy and productive. The thing about playing that way is it’s very, very hard and it gets more difficult to endure it with every passing year. Peter Forsberg is another example of a player who found himself in the same conundrum as Hall in terms of finding a balance between playing with passion and disregard for his health and not being available to his team.
The Oilers will say they don’t mind seeing Hall fighting and driving to the net the way he does, but you’d think that privately it has to have them a little nervous. If this franchise is going to ever take a step forward, it’s clear it will have to be with Hall leading the way. And he can’t do that if he’s on the mend. As great a player as Forsberg was, later in his career his teams could not count on him being in the lineup from one game to the next.
Hall is nearly 23 years old and going into this season he had already missed 48 of a possible 294 games, which is about a quarter of his career so far. That might not seem like a lot, but as Hall gets older, those injuries and the residual effects from them are going to start piling up. It will take longer to get healthy and each one will have a more significant toll on his body.
For Hall, this is not about becoming more sheepish on the ice and shying away from contact. To ask him to do that would take away a major component to his game and make him far less effective. It would also amount to throwing out the baby with the bath water. What it is about, though, is playing with a little more regard for his health. Perhaps he doesn’t have to make himself so vulnerable when he carries the puck or goes into the corner, or maybe he takes an extra split second to figure out that he can’t drive to the net without a major collision and he looks for another option.
It’s definitely a fine line, but it’s one Taylor Hall is going to have to learn to toe if he and the Oilers have any hopes of becoming everything they want to be.