If the Edmonton Oilers choose to send Taylor Hall(notes) back to juniors this season, it won't be because of his stat sheet; it'll be thanks to another document, the NHL's collective bargaining agreement.
Send him back to juniors with the Windsor Spitfires before he plays his 10th NHL game, and you preserve the seven-year window before he goes unrestricted as a free agent (and, based on the history of the venerable franchise, leaves Edmonton).
It also prevents the Oilers from "wasting" a year of Hall's entry-level contract on a middling season, as Tyler Dellow pointed out in an excellent post last month.
Through four games, Hall has one assist and is a minus-1; hardly panic time, but not exactly the stuff of first overall picks either. Also of concern: He has fewer shots in his last three games combined (three) than he did in his debut against the Calgary Flames (four), and was a minus-3 against the Flames in their rematch on Oct. 16.
Those are the numbers; as for observational evidence, David Staples of Cult of Hockey had the following take on Hall's play:
For all that, I've liked what I've seen of Hall. He's not a physical force, but he's not physically over-matched. He hasn't been getting bashed with big hits. He's faster than almost every other player on the ice and his stick-handling is strong. He's gotten over his jitters and is at least trying things out there. He's also held his own defensively so far.
Should Hall stay or go? And does the fact that this debate is raging vindicate those in the Oilogosphere who felt Hall shouldn't have started in the NHL in the first place?
"He's going to be here all year unless somebody tells me otherwise," said Renney. "That's a conversation you'd have down the road if, in fact, there was something that seems consistent in his game that really prevents him from moving forward. I'm not there.
"I think he'll just get better (and) that's an assimilation we're prepared to work with. And not just with him but others in our lineup in a year where we think we can afford to do that and, quite honestly, we need to."
"It takes time to get experience in the NHL and to figure out what you can do to be successful, especially within your own game," Horcoff continued. "And we're four games in. It's patience more than anything."
But here's the thing: It's hard to have patience when the clock is ticking down to a decision that could affect the future of the franchise.
It's not about Hall the Player; it's about Hall the Investment, and it's about the Oilers' salary-cap situation if Hall goes restricted in three years.
By starting the clock on their contracts now, the Oilers will not be able to afford to re-sign one of Ales Hemsky(notes) or Dustin Penner(notes), or any comparable replacement, after the end of the 2011-2012 season. This isn't up for debate, this is a simple extrapolation of the best-case/worst-case scenario for the upcoming contracts combined with the existing signed contracts. Holding each of them back for one season opens up a larger period of time where the Oilers won't have maximum cap pressure.
Winning the Stanley Cup isn't rocket science: you do it by spending your money better than everyone else and getting lucky. Really good young players provide you with outrageous value, which you can then turn into something else. My worry, when I listen to Steve Tambellini drone on his lobotomized monotone, is that he and the rest of the Oilers braintrust still thinks that this is the 1990's, when you could do what Ottawa did and gather a bunch of players together, suffer through the growing pains and then reap the benefit of a team that runs roughshod over the league (as the Sens did) for the next seven or eight years.
The NHL no longer works that way. Teams that try to do it that way will find that a window they never even knew was open has already closed. Giving away a very real and concrete advantage in 2013-14 because of fears of vague and uncertain consequences strikes me as foolish.
And this take on the marketing challenges that would allegedly occur if Hall was sent back to juniors:
I have a hard time believing that Oilers fans could not be sold on waiting a year for Hall and MPS if the organization put some effort into selling the idea that it was the right thing to do for the players. Given the time when the decision to buy tickets is made in a market like Edmonton's, I doubt that sending them down would have a significant impact on ticket sales. I'm not really moved by this as a reason not to send them down.
Neate Sager of Yahoo! Sports' Buzzing The Net has more on this issue, including this interesting nugget:
It is noteworthy how it has got turned around a bit since May. The popular thinking seemed to be that whoever was taken second between Hall and Tyler Seguin(notes) (getting fair-weather converage in Boston) would stand a better chance of extra seasoning in junior.
Seguin has two points in three games in less ice time than Hall has received.
Should Hall go back to juniors? Logically, it wouldn't be a bad move if he ends up, say, without a goal after nine games and playing the type of hockey he's played in the last three games. The Oilers are getting the "youth movement/turn the page" thing from Jordan Eberle's(notes) play; they don't necessarily need Hall to carry that torch yet.
And the arguments about the contractual implications for Hall being sent back are compelling. From a player-growth perspective, perhaps Hall benefits from a year getting knocked around like Steven Stamkos(notes) did. But from a team perspective, maybe keeping him in juniors was the correct move all along.