NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Jack Eichel was caught by surprise when he heard the Taylor Hall news.
After processing the addition of an elite talent to his team, the Sabres captain understood the relationship between Hall and head coach Ralph Krueger played a big factor in the stunning move.
“It made sense,” Eichel said. “And for a guy to come in here and have a big impact on our group, it’s huge. It’s a big opportunity for him and our team. And obviously it’s awesome for our city and excited to see him play this year.”
Eichel wasn’t alone in his surprise. The one-year, $8M deal caught everyone off guard. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced a flat salary cap ceiling and only a small number of NHL teams could court Hall, no one saw the 29-year-old winger ending up in Buffalo.
Hall could have signed elsewhere with more term, but he’s gambling on himself and gambling that the 2021 free agent market is better for unrestricted free agents. It’s also a bet on how the Sabres will do in a crucial year. Buffalo hasn’t made the postseason since 2011 and Eichel has expressed his desire to end their losing ways. In year two under Krueger, and adding Hall, steps could finally be taken in the right direction. If that’s the case, that would allow new general manager Kevyn Adams some hope in convincing Hall to stay.
The relationship between coach and player, which dates back to the lockout-shortened 2013 season when they were in Edmonton, will be mutually beneficial. There is respect and admiration from both sides, and Hall knows first-hand just how effective Kruger is in dealing with a mixed group of players.
“I think communication’s probably the biggest strength of his,” Hall said. “I think in today’s day and age, that’s what you need from a coach. I think he’s got the ability to connect with his assistant coaches, upper management, but he’s also got the ability to connect with an 18-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 25-year-old or a veteran guy. And I think that’s really hard to do.
“There’s a lot of hockey guys that really only assimilate with their peer group and Ralph’s got the ability to connect with a lot of different people and get the best out of them.”
[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]
The fan base is ready to finally embrace a winning team. They’re eager for an entertaining product again on the ice. While the external pressures are great, Krueger is fueled by his own desires to guide the franchise back into the playoffs.
“I don’t feel that type of pressure anymore at my age,” he said. “It’s more pressure you put on yourself to get the most out of the people that you lead. The potential of the group is what my goal is and I believe if we find that potential and stay healthy in the process, anything is possible with us this season. It’s my level of pressure, but it’s healthy and I love to put that kind of pressure on myself.
“Nobody can put more pressure on me than I already do and already have and it’s my fuel, I love it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be in a role like this.”
Hall and Eichel will provide a strong one-two punch on the Sabres’ top line. Victor Olofsson, Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Sam Reinhart will help up front with rookie Dylan Cozens hoping to also make an impact. The duo won’t have to feel the burden of carrying the entire offense, but the pressure will be increased if another down season plays out.
[2020-21 NHL on NBC TV SCHEDULE]
Hall said that the 2019-20 campaign, where he started with the Devils and was dealt to the Coyotes in December, taught him to “roll with the punches” and to “relax and kind of go with the flow.” New Jersey struggled out of the gate, prompting the trade. Then just after he arrived in Arizona, Darcy Kuemper got injured and the team struggled before the March pause, only making the postseason due to the expanded format. Those bumps, he says, affected his play, forcing him to do too much.
That’s all in the background now, and Hall is focused on getting the Sabres back to where the entire city wants them to be.
“At the end of the day, I did my best and I’m here now and it was not where I expected,” he said. “I thought I’d be somewhere on a longer-term deal but I think when I looked at my options, this was the best one for my future for now. And like I said, I hope it turns into something longer. I hope we can make a run at the playoffs and have a bright future and I can be a part of that growth.”
Kathryn Tappen anchors studio coverage throughout the evening with analysts Anson Carter, Patrick Sharp and Dominic Moore.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.