Oilers star Taylor Hall evolving as player and leader

— -- Fans of the Chicago Blackhawks were treated to one heck of a point streak by Hart Trophy front-runner Patrick Kane.

On Thursday night, they'll get to see a winger on the visiting Edmonton Oilers who is putting together a special season of his own.

"He's been tremendous for us," Oilers head coach Todd McLellan said Wednesday when asked about Taylor Hall's season. "He's been the catalyst."

Fourth in league scoring with 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists) in 32 games, the 24-year-old Hall is on pace for a career season, helping carry his team through key injuries, including one to rookie phenom Connor McDavid.

"One of the best power skaters in the game," a rival Western Conference scout said of Hall. "Good hands plus good playmaking abilities, obviously can score goals. But his first couple of seasons, lots of us were worried about him getting hurt badly because he kept his head down. He's learning, though, and will continue to get better. A real exciting player to watch."

Perhaps telling of Hall's evolution as a player and a leader, when asked about his offensive numbers, No. 4 turned the conversation toward the defensive zone as far as what he's most satisfied with so far this season.

"You realize that the less time you spend in your own end, the more time you are in the neutral zone and the offensive end, the more time you have the puck, which in the end will give you offense," Hall said over the phone this week. "It's my sixth season now, I feel like my defensive game is really starting to round out."

It's exactly what a rival head coach whose team played against him this season said first when asked about Hall: "A little better defensive awareness in his zone. Otherwise same qualities as before, high-end speed and scoring ability."

Hall said he's having a blast playing alongside rookie center  Leon Draisaitl and right winger Teddy Purcell, Hall putting up 10 points (six goals, four assists) in his past six games.

"I keep using the word 'bully.' He bullies his way to his offense," McLellan said. "He's had some very good linemates that have helped him, and in turn he's helped them as well. He's been able to make it work with a 20-year-old rookie as his centerman and they've faced the other team's top checkers night in and night out. It doesn't matter where we go, that's who they get ever since Connor has been out. He's been tremendous."

The Oilers are in the playoff conversation, and yes maybe that's largely because the Pacific Division is in a giving mood this season, but nevertheless Edmonton might just be playing meaningful games in the second half.

And that, folks, is the single-biggest driving force motivating Hall: wanting to finally play hockey that matters. It's what he hoped for this team before the season started, just to at least be in range, to be in the conversation.

"Just to be fighting for a playoff spot would be a fabulous thing," Hall said. "We haven't had that in a long time. You look at the roster, we're a very young team, we have a lot of young guys playing prominent roles. It's tough to really rocket up the standings that way, but if we can play some meaningful games in April and try to squeak in, that would be great."

Hall yearns for the day he'll suit up for his first career NHL playoff game. He craves the chance to make a name for himself and his team when it matters most.

"I've learned that over the years you don't get any respect in this league until you've played well in the playoffs, or your team has won in the playoffs," Hall said. "And that's the way it should be, to be honest. If you're a guy who's a regular-season superstar, that's one thing. But if you come to play in the playoffs, that's a whole new story. That's the kind of guy I want to be, eventually."

Hall experienced championship vibes in May in Prague when he put up 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 10 games en route to helping Canada win gold at the IIHF world championships.

In some ways, that served as a springboard to this season.

"Yeah, it was just nice to get winning again and have that feeling," Hall said. "And having Todd as a coach there was a great prelude to what's been a really good relationship so far."

The Oilers still have growing pains ahead, the blue line still needs so much help and the youth of the roster will show at times, but the breath of fresh air in Edmonton these days is that the team is actually relevant again.

"Our team is starting to find an identity a little bit, which we really haven't had in five years," Hall said. "We're starting to show a lot of improvement in a lot of areas lately.

"I mean, we're not a perfect team, we have a lot of work to do. But it's been a fun year, just seeing a lot of improvement from not only me but a lot of guys on our team."