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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