TORONTO – Ask Justin Hall for last year's low point of the 71st season and the Toronto Maple Leafs' defensive side painted a pretty bleak picture.
"Nice at all times," he says. "I think when you just think you play 11 games out of 82, it's a lot of practice, a lot of slides with bags, not a lot of reward. It's hard. You don't get the fun part, and these are the games.
"It felt like grinding nothing."
Maybe this is just a tale of late gratification.
One of the biggest surprises of the Maple Leafs earlier this season is the fact Hall emerged from the purgatory and found salvation. It could be seen on Tuesday when the native of Tonka Bay, Minn., First dressed up against his hometown of Minnesota Wild – interviewed between periods of a Fox Sports North visit broadcast and slipping in his fourth straight Toronto game.
While the headlines belonged to the others in a comfortable 4-2 leaf victory – Morgan Riley and his four assists; Mitch Marner and his goal and two assists; Frederick Andersen and his 27 saves – Hall could draw pleasure from simply contributing to the cause.
It was hardly an option for him during his NHL rookie campaign, when he was not left out of the press box until November 1 and sustained separate scrapes of 26, 23 and 12 games.
Maybe he broke a smaller man.
"Last year was really tough," Hall said. "I'm just happy to get a chance this year. It makes it easier when you play a couple of matches in a row and you get the confidence."
The path to a regular role was cleared even further with Monday's decision to send 19-year-old Rasmus Sandin back to the American Hockey League. Leave has left one spot open on the blue line even when Travis Dermot returns from a shoulder injury next week, and Hall already seems to have the inside track of Martin Marincin, Kevin Gravel and other depth contenders.
To stay in the favor of Mike Babcock, he needs to play with confidence in his own zone and get the cat moving in the right direction. Smart and simple. Hall had a lot of outside factors that worked against him last year, but it's hard to look at the fact that he was on the ice for 10 goals against 5-of-5 in the 11 games he played.
That number has dropped to one against five in his five appearances so far this year, down from a chance-scoring statistic followed by Lice coaching staff. The team generates 68% of the chances while Hall is on the ice, according to Naturalstattrick.com, and produces 59% of the shot attempts.
"When he plays, there is no chance of winning against him. It's really simple, "Babcock said, when asked why Hall's attitude changed internally. "I don't know how many people are added, but I know that besides his name there is no chance of achieving it. As long as he plays simple, so the macabo goes out of our zone and he boxes out and plays well defensively (has a role for him).
"I talked to Holly a lot: 'If you look at your career, are you a point man? No. What are you doing then? You keep it out of your network. “
Against the wild, Hall made a nice 1-on-1 match to keep Luke Quinn's rush from getting a good chance against Andersen. The goalkeeper later canonized him and his partner Martin Marinchin, when Marcus Foligno slammed in front of them for a clear escape from the neutral zone.
No extra emotion came from facing the Wild. Officially only 18 games in his NHL career and three months shy of his 28th birthday, just playing any game at this level is exciting enough.
"I wasn't a diehard, but I was definitely a fan," he told Wild. "More than a fan of fair weather. When the playoffs came out, like in 2003 when Andrew Brennan scored the winner of the Google 7 against Colorado, it was cool.
"This was a lot of fun and I went to some of these games."
He has come a long way to this point as a former second-round pick, finishing in the EFL after four years at the University of Minnesota.
Even when he finally aired the show last season, he barely had to feel like a real member of the Leafs at all. Hall sought motivation wherever he could find it during the furthest season of his life. Watching former teammate / scrimmage defender thrashing Leivo progresses in Vancouver after the "Leaves" exchange last December is one such example.
"I think he's a good source in terms of knowing what he is," Hall told Leivo. "He's like. Just be confident in yourself, remember who you are and don't let that happen to you." "
The best part of Hall's story is that he doesn't have to search for greener pastures to get his chance. The right-handed defender, the Calder 2018 Cup champion with Marley, appears to have benefited from the slate that was wiped clean when Dave Faxstol was hired this summer as a Babcock helper in charge of the blue line and the penalty kill.
He also wears a $ 675,000 hit cap in an organization that needs to save every cap, especially when it comes to a useful player.
"I want to work here and I want to play for this team because there are so many great players and they will make it easier for you," Hall said. "This is my main goal. I love it here. This is my fifth year (with the organization) and playing here is great. "
Especially when you really need to play.