At one point, Alex Ovechkin was the undisputed best left winger in the NHL, getting named to the first All-Star team in five straight seasons from 2006 to 2010. Then diminishing point totals allowed the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk and Daniel Sedin to make their case, until he switched to right wing last season and won the Hart Trophy.
Now you can make an argument that Taylor Hall is the best left winger in the league or, at the very least, soon will be as he continues to gain experience. Like Ovechkin, however, Hall will also be making a switch in position, as he is likely to start the season as a centre with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the shelf with a shoulder injury.
If moving Hall to centre is successful for the Oilers—he had a goal 24 seconds into his first preseason game at the position and won 65 percent of his faceoffs—the move may prove permanent, as the Oilers have a wealth of wingers but limited depth down the middle. Unfortunately for Hall, it may have a significantly negative impact on one of Hall's individual goals for this season: making Team Canada for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
By all rights, Hall should be a lock for Team Canada. Hall was the sixth-highest scoring Canadian in the league last season, finishing in the top 10 in scoring with 50 points in 45 games. He also would have been a second-team All-Star if not for a voting blunder by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association that saw Ovechkin receive votes at both right wing and left wing.
Hall also compares favourably to the other left wingers invited to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp: Chris Kunitz, Andrew Ladd, Rick Nash, Brad Marchand, James Neal and Milan Lucic. Hall outscored all but Kunitz last season and did so with limited offensive support in Edmonton. In addition, his speed would make him a valuable asset on the larger ice in Sochi, and his youth would provide vigour to a veteran lineup.
Inexplicably, Hall was projected to be on the outside looking in by TSN's panel of Bob McKenzie, Ray Ferraro, Darren Dreger, Pierre LeBrun and James Duthie. Their roster projection wasn't based on their own appraisal, but on their interactions with Team Canada's management:
The only pure left wingers on their projected roster were Kunitz and Nash, with centres like Steven Stamkos, Logan Couture and Eric Staal projected to take several of the winger roles.
Hall's only chance to make Team Canada would be to prove that he is a better option as a pure left winger than another left winger or one of the converted centres. If Hall doesn't play on the wing leading up to the Olympics, that seriously limits his chances, particularly when it looks like Hall would not make the team if the roster was put together today.
On the left wing, Hall will have to outplay the likes of Kunitz, Nash and Lucic, along with other left wingers not invited to the camp, like Evander Kane, James Neal and Jamie Benn. That is certainly possible—even likely—for Hall, who proved that he's among the upper echelon of wingers last season.
If he plays at centre, however, that puts him in closer comparison to the more experienced centres that Team Canada is considering to play on the wing.
Additionally, it will take time for Hall to make the transition to playing at centre after playing left wing for all of his professional and junior career. That will not only hurt his point totals, but also impact his two-way play, something Team Canada will be paying careful attention to.
What's truly baffling is that Hall was left off the projected roster in favour of Chris Kunitz. It seems clear that Hall is a better player than Kunitz, with another season on the left wing likely to prove that to be the case. The comparison if Hall plays at centre would potentially be a lot less persuasive.
While Kunitz did lead all left wingers in scoring last season, with 52 points in 48 games, he was actually second behind Hall in points per game. Kunitz is also less likely to repeat his performance than Hall, as Kunitz benefitted from the highest on-ice shooting percentage of his career, while Hall's was more in line with his previous two seasons.
While Hall's two-way play has been criticized, he was solid defensively for the Oilers, with his underlying puck-possession statistics as measured by Corsi (shot attempt +/-) indicating that he consistently kept the puck out of the defensive zone. In fact, his Relative Corsi from last season is similar to that of Kunitz, who played with Sidney Crosby, one of the strongest puck-possession players in the league.
The bulk of Kunitz's production came while playing with Crosby on the Penguins' top line. While Crosby was healthy and in the lineup, Kunitz had 44 points in 36 games, an average of 1.22 points per game. Without Crosby, Kunitz had just eight points in 12 games, an average of 0.67 points per game. Though that's a small sample size, it's clear that Kunitz massively benefited from playing with Crosby.
In fact, the only possible way that Kunitz could repeat his performance from last season is by again spending the entire season on Crosby's wing, as Crosby is one of the few players in the league capable of sustaining such a high on-ice shooting percentage.
None of this is to say that Kunitz is untalented, but that without Crosby, Kunitz wouldn't even be on Team Canada's radar. If he hadn't scored at greater than a point per game last season—the first time in his career he did so—it's doubtful he would have even merited an invite to camp.
It's also true that Kunitz would likely play with Crosby on the top line if he makes Team Canada, with their proven chemistry being one of the primary factors in his favour, but that would seem to limit the lineup options unnecessarily. If Kunitz makes Team Canada strictly to play with Crosby, that takes away the opportunity for a superior player, like Hall, to skate on the top line.
In comparison to Kunitz, Hall had a much more limited supporting cast in Edmonton. Hall finished 12 points ahead of Sam Gagner, who was the second-highest scorer for the Oilers last season, while Kunitz, despite playing 12 more games than Crosby, still finished behind him for the team lead in points. Hall had to do a lot more on his own for the Oilers.
It seems clear that Hall is a better player than Kunitz and deserves a roster spot on Team Canada over him. He'll need to prove he deserves it, however, in the coming season. That means the move from left wing to centre could be disastrous to his chances.
While Team Canada has enough talent without Hall to still win gold, it wouldn't make sense to leave such a talented young star off the roster, particularly in a position of relative weakness like left wing. Ideally, for both Hall and Team Canada, his stint at centre will be a short one.