The Edmonton Oilers missed winger Taylor Hall’s reckless abandon on attack during his seven-game injury layoff.
With Hall slated to return against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday, the question whether Hall will be the same no-holds-barred player, taking on defenders and driving to the net at high speed.
And should he be?
Hall, for one, says expect more of the same.
“I’m not going to change my game,” he told reporters after passing a fitness test Wednesday. “I can’t really afford to because I wouldn’t be as good a player. I have to maybe just play a little bit smarter and just not put myself in bad positions, like any smart player does.”
The Oilers struggled to a 2-4-1 record without Hall, who hurt his shoulder when he was run into the boards by Ryan Wilson of the Colorado Avalanche in Denver on Nov. 26.
Hall, 20, will return at left wing on a line with captain Shawn Horcoff and right winger Ales Hemsky.
“You don’t want to limit his ability to attack,” Horcoff said of Hall. “He saw that with Hemmer [Hemsky]early in his career, too. He was always the first one in the corner and taking those big hits.
“There’s going to be times when he’s able to use body position a little bit more to soften the blows. You can position yourself more instead of going loose into the boards. That’s something you learn with time.”
With seven goals and 18 points in the 22 games, Hall was off to a tremendous start in his second season with the Oilers. He missed the final 17 games of last season after spraining his ankle in a fight with Derek Dorsett of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“If I think this is going to be the only time I’m injured in my career, I’m lying to myself,” Hall said. “There’s going to be some growing pains. Last year was a freak accident, you know? I hurt my ankle in a fight, so this is really the first injury I’ve ever had. I’m not going to really chance my game too much. The shoulder feels really good and I’m not going to play tentative at all. I can’t afford to.”
Hall’s ability to put defenders on their heels and open up ice for linemates with his speed gives the Oilers a different look. In football terms, Hall is a deep threat that stretches defences.
“Every time he has the puck he looks dangerous,” Horcoff said. “He’s a scorer, plain and simple. He’s relentless. When he gets the puck, he’s getting it to the net one way or another, whether it’s with his body or shooting it. He opens up so much ice for whoever he is playing with because he attacks with so much speed.”
Reuniting Hall with Horcoff and Hemsky allows coach Tom Renney to keep the line of Sam Gagner, rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle together. Nugent-Hopkins is among the top 10 NHL scorers with 13 goals, 19 assists and 32 points and Eberle is right behind him with 11-20-31.
“You’ve got to have the wherewithal to know what’s going on around you,” Renney said when asked if Hall needs to make adjustments to his game. “Certainly, offensively and with the puck, that’s essential.
“Where he can get compromised, I suppose, is on the offensive side of the puck and he’s going to have to play hockey and sort that out. We’ve already talked a little bit about some strategies to help him. Playing safe is the wrong way to put it, but play without the risk of injury.”
Off since a 3-0 loss to the Calgary Flames last Saturday, the Oilers (14-13-3) are looking to regain traction with games in Phoenix and San Jose on Saturday after a stretch in which they’ve struggled to a 4-5-1 mark.
“The season is so long,” Hall said. “We’ve got a long haul ahead of us and I’m glad to be back as soon as I could.
“It sucks missing games, especially when the team’s not doing well. You want to be out there doing the best you can. I’m happy I took the extra couple of days to really get it better and I feel great now.”