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New Jersey Devils centre Scott Gomez says he's taking free agency road

The freewheeling 27-year-old centre who led the Devils in scoring in the playoffs will become an unrestricted free agent in July, and he clearly intends to test the market.

"We have gone this far, it would be foolish not to see what's out there," Gomez said. "That doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean I am leaning one way or I don't want to be here. I have talked to all the guys that have played here and gone through this. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Gomez went to arbitration last summer and was awarded a US$5-million, one-year deal.

After collecting 13 goals and 47 assists in the regular season, and four goals and 10 assists in the post-season, Gomez can expect even more next year.

General manager and coach Lou Lamoriello said that fitting Gomez under the salary cap next year depends on a lot of variables he would not discuss.

"There is no question we would like to have Scott back, but we understand the situation he is in," Lamoriello said.

Loosely translated, the Devils had trouble with the salary cap last year, and it will be even tougher next season if they give a ton of money to Gomez.

A member of the Devils' 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup champions, Gomez knows that could send him packing.

"I have been fortunate to win here," Gomez said. "I have grown up here. I don't know anything else. I got two Stanley Cups. I learned how to win. I learned commitment."

Staying with the Devils would let Gomez play for an organization that has a shot at winning the Cup seemingly every season. The negatives would be remaining in a system that is not as wide open as he would like, and being on a top line that rarely goes head to head with the opposition's No. 1 line.

Gomez refused to talk about those drawbacks before walking out of the Continental Airlines Arena for what might be the final time. The Devils are moving to the new Prudential Center in Newark next season.

"He is a great offensive player," Devils forward Jay Pandolfo said of Gomez. "He is great in the locker room and has been great for the team for a long time. If you asked anyone on the team, they would love to have him back."

Patrik Elias, the left wing on Gomez's line, said free agency isn't fun. Last summer he got a $42-million, six-year deal to stay here.

"It was a stressful situation because there are a lot of teams, and you have to make a quick decision," Elias said. "Do you go ahead and explore the option or lose it? If you do make a decision, how does it affect your life and hockey career?"

Gomez will get those answers in July.

"Guys who have gone through it think it's 'this big party,"' Gomez said of free agency. "You want it to end as quick as possible."

Lamoriello has six other unrestricted free agents to consider: defencemen Brian Rafalski and Brad Lukowich; forwards Erik Rasmussen, Mike Rupp and Jim Dowd; and goaltender Scott Clemmensen. Defencemen Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are restricted free agents.

Lamoriello, who fired Claude Julien as coach and took over with three games left in the regular season, said he has candidates for the coaching job. He refused to discuss them.

Assistant coach John MacLean said he is interested, although he has not spoken to Lamoriello about it.

On Monday, Lamoriello toured the Prudential Center and said the Devils' new home, still under construction, is "well, well along" and will be ready for next season.

In case of delays, Lamoriello said the team probably would ask the league to open the season on the road.



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