The Taylor Hall free agency sweepstakes is ending in a place none of us expected: Buffalo. In a surprising offseason development, it was announced Sunday that Hall is signing a one-year deal worth $8 million with the Sabres. On the surface, it's stunning. Why would Hall -- the prize forward of this year's free agency class and a guy who has said winning is his main priority -- sign with Buffalo, of all places, and on a short-term deal?
We all anticipated Hall ending up on a contending team and with a long-term deal, and perhaps under the circumstances of a normal offseason it may have happened. But, all things considered, Hall ending up in Buffalo might be as sensible as it is shocking.
By going to the Sabres -- a team that's still attempting to rebuild and climb out of a seemingly never-ending pit of despair -- Hall essentially guarantees himself ample minutes as a top line winger, and under relatively low pressure. He'll likely play alongside Jack Eichel, one of the most talented young centers in the league, and put up a boatload of points. (And yes, Taylor Hall has a license to operate that boat.)
Playing alongside Eichel all year will likely beef up Hall's production, and inflated stats means a bigger bag when it comes time to renegotiate next offseason. (Just ask Jeff Skinner how important that can be.) Eichel probably isn't the only draw for Hall, either. The Sabres are coached by Ralph Krueger, who the winger played under in Edmonton during the 2012-13 season. Hall thinks highly of his former (and new) coach.
"I had a great experience with him," Hall said of Krueger last year. "Two years he was an assistant coach, and he looked after the D. Even then, speaking with him, obviously his attitude was evident. The way he looks at life and hockey was always positive. It was always great chatting with him. We had the lockout-shortened year where he was head coach and really enjoyed playing for him, whether it was his systems or the environment he created at the arena. I thought it was always great to be around the arena then."
The deal, if nothing else, is a show of faith in Eichel and Krueger helping Hall play his best game next season. He may not be getting his bag now but he's putting himself in pretty good position to cash in a year from now.
Yes, there's inherent risk in a one-year deal. On the same day that Hall agreed to this Buffalo arrangement, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a potentially devastating injury on the field. Prescott and the Cowboys were engaged in a lengthy negotiation process this offseason but the two sides weren't able to reach a long-term deal before the summer deadline. He was playing on a one-year franchise tag at the time of his injury, and now his big payday is in jeopardy.
Hall is taking the same sort of gamble and, as he heads into his age 29 season, a serious injury could potentially erase the possibility of him ever seeing the blockbuster deal he sought this offseason.
But that blockbuster deal he sought may not have actually even existed this offseason, either. With a COVID-influenced cap freeze causing a down market this year, Hall may not have liked what was on the table for him. Waiting it out a year and hoping the cap will continue to rise could be more profitable for him.
So, what about the whole "wanting to win" thing? If that was Hall's priority, like he claimed, then why the Sabres? They haven't made the playoffs since 2011, giving them the longest postseason drought in the NHL.
I'm sure we'll hear that he likes Buffalo's roster and he thinks that they'll be able to compete this year, and maybe they will. He should make them a better team. But choosing the Sabres on a one-year deal indicates that, at some point, winning took a back seat. There's always the chance that those priorities shifted once it was clear the market shifted.
However, this bet doesn't totally rule out winning next year, either. If things don't work out in Buffalo and it's clear it's not meant to be, Hall could always be dealt to a contender at the mid-season deadline. With the one-year deal he can once again be an attractive rental piece. And with a full no-move clause attached to said deal, he'll basically be able to control where he ends up.
From Buffalo's perspective, it makes a ton of sense as well. By taking a short-term flier on a great player, they not only put themselves in position to get better immediately, they also give themselves a full year of exclusive negotiation rights with Hall if they decide they want to keep him beyond next season -- something they're already expressing interest in. Plus, adding him to the roster also probably helps their chances of keeping Eichel, who has made it clear to the organization that he's fed up with losing in Buffalo.
Yes, it's a deal that may seem silly on the surface, and it's got a chance to backfire on Hall. But once the shock wears off, the picture becomes clearer the longer you look at it, and it's not the worst bet from either side.