In the third period of the Oilers/Coyotes game on Wednesday I saw what I thought was Taylor Hall with a minor slash on Zbynek Michalek. The puck was in the corner when it happened so I didn't see the entire play, just the tail end and the scrum that followed. The Coyotes were visibly upset by the play - for which Hall wasn't penalized - but it wasn't until I saw a replay that I understood why.
There is no getting around it, that is an ugly play by Hall. The worst part of the play is that he pauses just before he slashes Michalek as if he's contemplating whether or not to slash him and then goes for it any way. That none of the four referees felt that the play was worthy of a major penalty, or any penalty for that matter, is stunning. More surprising is that so far there is no word of any supplemental discipline either. At a minimum Hall should be fined for the play and in all honesty I don't think a suspension is completely unwarranted. If you don't agree I ask, would you say the same if that's Hall getting slashed?
In just his third season Hall has already established himself as the best player on the Oilers. The Oilers five game winning streak made this crystal clear to anyone who hadn't already figured that out. Hall is a monster. He drives the play and he tilts the ice in the Oilers favour almost every time he steps on to the ice. Those are all very good things but between this incident and two previous run-ins with league discipline this season he's also in danger of being labelled as a dirty player, something that won't help him or the team in the long run.
As you probably remember, earlier this year Hall was given a two game suspension for a knee on knee hit with Cal Clutterbuck and in his time with the Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout he was assessed a match penalty for a hit to to the head. That penalty, which came with an automatic suspension, would later be rescinded but between them and the slash on Wednesday night, all which have happened in the span of less than six months, they start to paint a picture of a player who plays right on, if not just over, the line.
Of course playing on the line doesn't mean dirty and at this point I'm not ready to say that Hall is absolutely a dirty player. Some of that opinion is undoubtably the result of a bias on my part as an fan of the Oilers but it's also because if looked at individually I can justify or at least excuse each of these incidents in some way (Clutterbuck is an ass, for example). This is really the limit of what I can chalk up to coincidence though. If Hall continues to blur the line like he has over the last few months then I do think the label as a dirty player will be applied to him and it will be justified.
That would be problematic for the Oilers for a couple of reasons. First, the chance that he's going to miss games due to suspension is going to increase. The Oilers with and without Hall are two very different team. I like the one with him in the lineup a whole lot more. Second, referees might be a little more willing to look the other way when other teams take liberties with Hall. He's already played very closely by opponents and if they get a little more freedom to take liberties he's going to be in for some tough sledding night after night. There is also the chance that one of the designated hitters in this league tries to exact some revenge for something Hall has been done. This I think is the least likely happen because a) those types of players can't catch Hall and b) even if they could the puck will be in the net before they have a chance.
All of this isn't to say that I want Hall to stop playing physical or to standing up for himself. Those things are part of his game and they're part of what helped make him a first overall selection, he should keep doing those things. What I want is for Hall find the line between what is and isn't acceptable and stay on the right side of it. If he's going to be a leader on this team that something he has to do in my opinion.
Some fans and even those in the media want to compare Hall to Mark Messier which is a wonderful comparison, the problem with that is that we aren't paying hockey in the mid-80s and a lot of what Messier did would not be tolerated in today's NHL. That's just a fact. Hall plays in a very different version of the NHL than Messier did and whether that is a good thing or not is a debate for another time, what matters is that if Hall continues to channel his in Messier he is more likely to hurt the Oilers than help them. That's something Hall needs to be aware of and try to make sure doesn't happen.