By Jonathan Willis
Dec 5, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Why Taylor Hall is a big enough talent to be worth a long-term contract gamble
Taylor Hall is the top player slated for unrestricted free agency this coming NHL offseason.
At 28, he’s young for the open market. Hall won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2018 and has put up 22 points in 27 games despite an impressive array of obstacles in New Jersey, including a low personal shooting percentage and an inept Devils power play. He’s the best player out there, and the team that signs him can bank on at least a few good years before any decline begins.
Hall is also highly likely to be traded before the end of the season. As Pierre LeBrun reported over the weekend, the Devils are listening to trade offers. Given that they’re well out of the playoffs, just fired their coach and a contract extension has not been signed, the dots aren’t hard to connect. The question has become not if Hall will be traded, but when he is moved will it be as a pure rental or as a trade-and-extend situation a la Mark Stone last season.
The risk of an extension is the same as with any other big-name free-agent signing. Hockey players peak in their early to mid-20s. A player in Hall’s position can command big money over the maximum term, meaning that his eventual home is likely to be paying him to at least age 35.
Most players are out of the league by that age. According to a study done at Hockey Graphs by the folks behind Evolving Hockey, the average 35-year-old is worth one win less than he was at 23, and given that the majority of NHL players aren’t a full win better than a replacement-level substitute, that spells doom. The curve seems to be even sharper for forwards than defensemen.
However, Hall isn’t most players. In his Hart year, Evolving Hockey’s model rated him as being worth 26 goals or five full wins more than the average replacement-level player. That was peak value; over most of his prime Hall was worth between 1.5 and 2.7 wins above replacement. If he ages like the average forward, he should still be an NHL player at 35.
There’s a difference, however, between being an NHL player and being worth a massive free-agent contract. In Hall’s case, teams will have to balance what he brings over the life of his coming contract against the total dollars spent, to say nothing of the assets expended to acquire him. That’s where it’s helpful to have direct comparables.
Unfortunately, we’re limited by data. Basic data like time on ice only goes back to 1999, and the information that goes into calculating WAR and GAR only goes back as far as 2007. If we want to find players who compare to Hall, we’re stuck using more basic numbers, like points-per-game.
If we look at Hall’s production between the ages of 25 and 28 (using such a large sample so as to smooth out the peaks and valleys in individual seasons) and then look for wingers who scored at between 85 and 115 percent of Hall’s clip, we come up with a list of 21 comparables who have now reached their age-35 season.
They range from Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa at the top end to Patrik Elias and Rick Nash at the low end. The group median is 0.95 points-per-game over the platform period, which is a touch lower than Hall’s 0.99 points-per-game, but close enough for these purposes.
Next season will be Hall’s age-29 campaign. The chart shows the median points-per-game number for the group (including players who dropped out of the league) over the seven years from age-29 to age-35:
The median player the first two seasons came in at 0.86 points per game, a 71-point pace over a full season. In the modern NHL that is excellent first-line production. That number dropped to the equivalent of 63 points over an 82-game season at age 31 and 32 and bottomed out at 56 points at age 33 before rebounding slightly at age 34 and 35.
Overall the median outcome for the group was a first-line player for the first half of the contract who transitioned into a second-line player in its back half.
In terms of total value over those seven years, that median player is one we have modern numbers for: Minnesota’s Zach Parise. Parise was one half of the Wild’s 2012 free agent splurge, which saw him and defenceman Ryan Suter signed to identical 13-year, $98-million contracts. If he’d been signed to a seven-year pact at the same age Hall will be this summer, this would be the final season on his deal. He’s still a productive NHL player.
The likeliest outcome for a team signing Taylor Hall is a seven-year arc that looks like the one Zach Parise is presently concluding. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)Since we have WAR for the relevant period, it’s worth noting how closely Parise’s platform years match Hall’s. Parise’s peak (4.8 WAR) was slightly lower than Hall’s, but in most years he fell into the same range. His WAR over the years, which would be covered by Hall’s UFA contract rather nicely, matches the scoring data we have. Three times he’s put up first-line numbers, three times he’s been either a second-liner or just below and he’s had one bad year mixed in for good measure. Given the way this matches up with the scoring data, we may say that a team signing Hall should expect to get a first-line forward half the time, a second-year forward half the time and probably a bit of time lost to injury, too.
It’s also worth looking at the extreme outcomes, for good and bad, to get a fair view of the risk.
The best-case scenario is very good. Marian Hossa had 30 goals and finished fifth in Selke voting at 35. Alexei Kovalev had 84 points at 34 and got Hart votes; he followed it up with 65 points the next year. Patrik Elias led this set of 21 in age-35 scoring, with 78 points. Between them, those three represent the top, middle and bottom of our sample group, so Hall landing in this range is a real possibility.
At the other end of the spectrum, five of our sample players were outside the NHL at 35, though only KHL-bound Alexander Semin was gone before the age of 34. Injuries were significant factors in nearly all the early exits, from Nash to Martin Havlat to Heatley, who between them also neatly encompasses the bottom, middle and top of our sample group.
As worst-case scenarios go, long-term injured reserve isn’t an awful one. As the league has demonstrated time and again, teams can often trade these contracts, and even when the deals are untradeable, they’re typically survivable. In that respect, a Marian Gaborik-like career tail, where injuries reduce effectiveness but don’t quite drive the player out of the league, might actually be worse than outright collapse.
The Gaborik scenario is a rare one, though. Typically a high-end forward in the Hall bracket either provides something useful over this age range or crashes and burns completely. That distinguishes Hall from the UFA class of 2016, where teams around the league went hard after a bunch of second-line forwards: not only are those players easier to find internally than someone like Hall, but when they lose a step they can find themselves fighting just to stay in the league, as opposed to slotting in on a second line.
There’s some chance Hall’s still a first-line player at 35 and some chance he’s on injured reserve; imagine those as rolling a one or six on a six-sided die. The likeliest outcome sees him as a useful second-line forward; imagine that as a roll of any number between two and five.
When we think of the really awful free-agent contracts over the last few years, most of them weren’t players of Hall’s caliber. The place where teams get into trouble is signing expensive secondary guys. Not only do they not offer high value at the front end of their deals, but they also tend not to have the ability to play a top-six role after losing a step.
There is another factor: the league’s traditional reluctance to squeeze its middle class in the name of paying star players. Artemi Panarin cashed-in big in free agency last year, earning $11.6-million annually from the Rangers; incredibly that contract is pretty much on-par with the $11.5-million Jaromir Jagr was paid in 2002-03. Revenues have climbed dramatically, but the biggest gains have been made by the NHL’s middle and lower classes, with the marquee talent only now beginning to regain lost ground.
As strange as it sounds, swinging big in free agency can be a smaller risk than going after lesser targets. Even as the league gets younger, sometimes the high-end players are worth gambling on into their 30s, and Hall appears to be such a player.