The New Jersey Devils have put themselves in a pretty good position when it comes to ending their playoff drought that goes all the way back to the 2011-12 season. After defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night, 3-2, they sit nine points clear of the first non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference and are just two points out of one of the top-three spots in the Metropolitan Division.
Given how hard it is for teams to make up ground this late in the season, they should be feeling pretty good.
They still have the Edmonton Oilers to thank for being in this position.
It was less than two years ago that the Oilers sent Taylor Hall, one of the best left wingers in the sport, to New Jersey in a one-for-one swap for defenseman Adam Larsson.
At the time it was a stunning trade was widely panned outside of Edmonton.
Today, it is a pretty much an embarrassment.
On Tuesday, in a game that featured Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, none of them were the best player on the ice. It was Hall, as he caused havoc every time he entered the game, forcing turnovers, disrupting the Penguins’ defense, adding to his points streak (now at 22 games) with a goal and an assist to help the Devils pretty much beat the Penguins at their own game.
It was a sight to behold, and every single time the puck touched his stick, or every single time he created a chance, the only thought that could go through your mind was “how did somebody in charge of an NHL hockey team think trading this guy was going to make their team better?”
With 68 points in 58 games this season his place in the MVP discussion has gone from, well maybe he has a pretty good argument, to he should probably be one of the three finalists.
He is sixth in the NHL in points per game and second to only Brad Marchand among left-wingers.
During his point streak, which started on the first day of the new year, he has recorded 32 points and had a hand (either scoring the goal or assisting the goal) in 49 percent of the Devils’ total goals during that stretch. That number on its own without any sort of context would be amazing.
When you consider that Hall did not play in three of the Devils’ games during that stretch due to injury it is absolutely incredible.
He has done for the Devils what the Oilers hoped he would do for them, and something they never really gave him an opportunity to do — give the team an identity and help change the fortunes of the franchise.
With Hall in place, and a few lucky bounces of the ping pong balls in the draft lottery, and a few shrewd additions by general manager Ray Shero, the Devils look like an entirely different team than the one that was taking the ice just two short years ago. With Hall, Michael Grabner, Miles Wood and five other players under the age of 24 the Devils are a young, fast team that looks like it is built to play in the NHL in 2018.
They can fly all over the ice. They can put pressure on opponents. They are actually — and I can’t believe this is something we can say about the New Jersey Devils — kind of fun to watch.
It’s definitely a career year for Hall, which is not surprising given that he is in his age 26 season, usually around the point where players are in their peak.
But it’s not like Hall hasn’t always been one of the most productive players in the NHL throughout his career.
From the time he entered the NHL as the top pick in 2010 through his trade out of Edmonton, he was 22nd in the NHL among all players in points per game (minimum 200 games played) and fourth among all left wingers. If you remove his rookie season when he was only 19 years old, he goes up to 13th and third respectively. The only two players on that list ahead of him to be traded at any point in their careers are Martin St. Louis and Tyler Seguin. St. Louis requested a trade. Seguin was traded by the guy that also traded Taylor Hall.
Hall was the only player in the top-15 that never played in the playoffs during that stretch. The 12 players ahead of him combined for only 10 missed playoff appearances during that stretch. It’s more of a damning statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around an elite player than it is about Hall. Edmonton’s inability to build a team around Connor McDavid on an entry-level contract only seems to confirm that.
Since being hired by the Devils Ray Shero has made some pretty bold trades to get the team headed back in the right direction.
Getting Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks for a couple of draft picks was steller. Injuries have derailed his season, but the same could one day be said for getting Marcus Johansson in a trade with the Washington Capitals. He made some quality moves at the deadline to improve their depth for the stretch run by adding Grabner and Patrick Maroon without really giving up anything of significance. He got a little bit of good fortune in the draft lottery by having everything go his way to land Nico Hischier.
All of those moves working in unison have helped put the Devils in a position to where they could finally return to the playoffs.
But nothing compares to the good fortune, or has had the same impact, as happening to catch Edmonton feeling that it absolutely had to trade away one of the best players in the league in a one-for-one swap.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.