EDMONTON – How long has it been?
In calendar terms, the New Jersey Devils game against the Edmonton Oilers Friday will be their first appearance at Rexall Place since Dec. 30, 2001 – nine days short of six years.
The last time the Devils darkened the Oilers door, their home rink wasn’t called Rexall Place. The last time New Jersey came calling, rookie Sam Gagner was 12 years old, playing minor peewee for the Toronto Marlies.
“He was having an exceptional year, though,” Oilers coach Craig MacTavish quipped about the 18-year-old Gagner. “He had a lot of points.”
Thanks to scheduling and a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, just four Oiler players who were with the team for a 2-1 loss to the Devils six Decembers ago – injured captain Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff, Marty Reasoner and Steve Staios – remain.
“Fans pay the freight and, clearly, they want to see all the teams,” said MacTavish, talking about a shift in scheduling that will see more play between the conferences next season. “The fans want to see it and the fans should get what they want.”
New Jersey has six holdovers – Marty Brodeur, Brian Gionta, John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, Patrick Elias and Sergei Brylin – on a roster that opened a three-game swing through the Western Conference with a 5-0 loss to the Canucks in Vancouver Tuesday.
“It’s pretty exciting to play new teams,” said Gagner, who was still getting rides to the rink with his mom when Brodeur out-duelled Tommy Salo in the 2-1 game. “You’d like to see them a little more often.”
With the emphasis on divisional rivalries within the conferences the last three seasons, the Oilers and Devils haven’t played each other at all in two years – the last time was Dec. 13, 2005, when Brodeur made 29 saves to get the better of Ty Conklin and the Oilers 2-1 in a shootout in The Swamp.
“The schedule right now is unfair to the fans,” said Sheldon Souray, who spent his first 10 NHL seasons with New Jersey and Montreal. “I know what they were trying to do with building up rivalries and stuff, but it kind of went in the opposite direction.
“We’re kind of losing some of that lustre. It’s not fair that Oiler fans can only see guys like Jaromir Jagr, Vincent Lecavalier or Sidney Crosby once every three years. Just look at the buzz Crosby generated coming through here.”
Starting with the 2008-09 season, the NHL will step up play between the conferences, with teams crossing over for 18 games, playing each team once and three of those teams home-and-away.
While it seemed a good idea at the time, weighting the schedule in favour of divisional rivalries denied fans in the west the chance to see marquee names from the east. Oilers fans, for instance, got their first look at Crosby Dec. 5. This is his third NHL season.
“The players get a little sick of it, too,” said former NHLer Dave Gagner, watching son Sam skate with the Oilers Thursday. “You get a little bit tired of playing the same teams all the time.
“The thing about rivalries is both teams have to be fighting for playoff positions. For the fans, it’s nice to get to see all the teams.”
For Andrew Cogliano, a bantam with the Vaughan Kings in Toronto the last time the Devils were in Edmonton, the shift in scheduling will mean more chances to play in front of family and friends.
“The fun thing for me will be the Canadian loop,” said Cogliano. “You do Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa. That will be pretty cool.
“The only thing I know about New Jersey is (coach) Brent Sutter, and that’s only because I played for him at the world junior championship.”