Taylor Hall – Sabres combo a mixed bag so far

[UPDATE: The Islanders-Sabres game scheduled to air on NBCSN Tuesday has been postponed due to COVID concerns.]

How would you grade Taylor Hall and the Buffalo Sabres 10 games through their still-kind-of-shocking partnership? It probably depends upon what you look at.

If you only look at the totals, you’ll feel like it’s an uncomfortably familiar situation — both for Taylor Hall, and his new team in the Sabres.

Hall has nine points through 10 games. By certain metrics, he’s making a huge impact in a positive way, when he’s on the ice. Yet his team is middling-if-not bad; the Sabres bring a 4-4-2 record into Tuesday’s game against the similarly up-and-down Islanders.

But if you look at other numbers, and also note the Sabres’ continued struggles to climb the ladder, you might rate the Taylor Hall experience even less kindly.

Some troubling stats for Taylor Hall early on with Sabres

Again, there’s that record. There’s also the uncomfortable fact that Taylor Hall has only scored a single goal through his first 10 games with the Sabres. That goal came all the way back in the Sabres’ season-opener, when Hall also collected an assist. And (cough) the Sabres lost.

Just recently, Hall shook off a cold streak. Sort of.

After starting his Sabres debut with a goal and five assists through three games, Hall suffered through a four-game pointless streak. His playmaking bounced back, though, as he’s collected three assists in his past three games.

But the Sabres certainly were hoping for a little more oomph when they made that Hall splash. And whether Hall actually wants to stay or not, you can bet he’s hoping to drive his earning potential up with goals.

When you dig deeper, you get … wait for it … a mixed bag.

On one hand, it would be difficult to argue a lack-of-trying. Hall has fired 29 shots on goal so far, and 55 shot attempts. If nothing else, expect his puck luck to bounce back, as his shooting percentage is just 3.7 this season.

Still, it’s fair to be a little troubled overall.

In a recent piece for the Buffalo News, Travis Yost examined Taylor Hall’s underlying stats, both with the Sabres and before this season. Despite playing most of this year with Jack Eichel (and often with Sam Reinhart), Hall’s generating less shots-per-60-minutes, and his expected goals are down.

So it’s not just bad luck.

Then again, maybe a noteworthy change could help out?

Could the answer be in spreading the wealth

Back on Thursday, the Sabres separated Hall from Jack Eichel. At the moment, it looks like Eichel will center Victor Olofsson and Casey Mittelstadt, while Hall will line up with Eric Staal and Dylan Cozens.

Naturally, with modern hockey, those configurations can change. For what it’s worth, Hall’s saying the right things about lining up with Staal instead of Eichel.

“He’s still got it,” Hall said of Staal, via Bill Hoppe of the Times-Herald. “He’s big, he’s lanky, he can move well out there and just a veteran guy that knows where to be. … Whether I’m playing with Jack or Eric, that was my thought coming into this year. There are two really good centermen to play with here and that can create matchup problems.”

Look, it’s hard not to picture Hall gritting his teeth there a little bit. When Hall signed with the Sabres, he was likely more excited about lining up with a 24-year-old superstar rather than a 36-year-old who has seen better days.

(Though Staal does still have it, if by “it” you mean quite a bit to offer an NHL team. Just not if you mean what he had during his peak Hurricanes years.)

All kidding aside, there are some tactical and practical advantages to mixing things up.

Being that Hall and Eichel are both great transition players, there was some concern about those facets of their skills being rendered a bit redundant when lining up together.

Hall Eichel All 3 Zones
Viz by CJ Turtoro; Data compiled by Corey Sznajder

To be fair, Eric Staal is no transition slouch either, especially for his age. But Eichel and Hall are pretty special in that area.

[Related: Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Beyond that specific facet, there’s also the classic debate. Do you load up for a super line, or try to make opponents pick their poison?

If Hall – Eichel wasn’t working for the Sabres, why not see if Staal – Hall and Eichel – lucky beneficiaries works out better? Such a scenario might make extra sense for the Sabres against a stingy team like the Islanders.

And, naturally, the Sabres could always go back to Hall – Eichel. Ralph Krueger can even mix and match. Maybe you roll with the two of them after the opposing team ices the puck, and they’re both reasonably rested. Or in the dying minutes of a period.

Of course, at some point, stars simply need to perform like stars. That hasn’t happened as much as Hall or the Sabres would like — yet — but it’s early. We’ll see if we look at this rough patch as a bump in the road, or the prelude for another detour for the star-crossed scorer.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.