EDMONTON - Before Tuesday's informal, pre-training camp practice session, it had been 277 days since the Edmonton Oilers last skated as a group at Rexall Place.
Think about it. Two hundred and seventy seven days.
"It feels great," said Taylor Hall, who arrived back in Edmonton late Monday night. He did not participate in Tuesday's practice -- neither did Jordan Eberle or rookie defenceman Justin Schultz.
"It almost seems kind of surreal to be back here, back with the guys and in a city where we love playing. We're all excited to be here and get the season started."
"I feel like I'm in mid-season form right now," added Eberle, the AHL's leading scorer with 25 goals and 51 points in 34 games. "There are going to be some guys that are going to be a little rusty and that's bound to happen. But we have enough guys here that have been playing that it shouldn't be a problem.
"With this compressed schedule, [the AHL] prepared us as well as we could have been. We're going to have a big advantage in that we're ready to go."
While Hall, Eberle and Schultz spent the day gathering their bearings and seeing their new locker stalls, Corey Potter, Ladislav Smid, Eric Belanger, Nick Schultz, Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin all skated for nearly two hours. Oilers Skating and Skills Coach Steve Serdachny's brother, Dan, led the group through a series of drills since the club's coaching, equipment and medical staff aren't allowed to be involved until the new CBA is ratified.
"The OKC experience was great," said Hall, who was all smiles as he donned a collection of freshly fitted Oilers apparel. "It's obviously not the situation we wanted -- we wanted to be in the NHL. But as far as gaining experience, being a better player and being a better leader on a team, it was great for us."
Hall was not assigned to the Barons like Eberle, Schultz and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were because he started the season on the sidelines as his surgically-repaired shoulder was healed and properly restrengthened. Shortly into the season, however, Hall inked a separate AHL contract to continue playing with his NHL linemates in Oklahoma City.
In 26 games with the Barons, Hall scored 14 goals and 34 points.
"We had a lot of chemistry and were looked upon as leaders of that team," he said. "I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I love playing with those guys. For us to go down there and experience that, it was great. We didn't want to be there, we wanted to be in Edmonton, but if there was any other place to go, I wouldn't have changed a thing."
In addition to helping the Barons amass an 18-13-1-3 record, Hall was privy to the dynamic play of the Oilers' prized free agent signing, Justin Schultz. Schultz, 22, would have easily smashed John Slaney's longstanding record for goals among rookie defencemen in the AHL with 20.
Instead, he'll make his NHL debut after accumulating 18 goals and 48 points in 34 games in his first pro taste.
"Justin's the kind of guy who doesn't know what colour the puck is because he never looks down at it -- he's always looking up at the ice the whole time," Hall laughed. "He's an easy player to play with. He's a great passer, he knows and sees the game so well. Nick (Schultz, Justin's prospective defensive partner) is going to have to stay back a bit. There were a couple times this year where we were shorthanded and Schultzy was behind the (opponent's) net. We scored a shorthanded goal and he got an assist on it because he was there."
"He's a great talent. He's proven that at the pro level now," Nick said "That's important and coming into the NHL is another step for him. Consistency is a big thing and that will be his greatest challenge as a young player coming in, as I did when I started. He would be a fun guy to play with -- it would be a great opportunity."
Earlier in his career, Nick played with Willie Mitchell and Kim Johnsson with the Minnesota Wild. Both were offensive players that were well suited to that role, with an abundance of power-play time alongside a veteran, stay-at-home presence.
As a result, both Nick and Justin believe they could become an effective and well-balanced duo on the back end.
"I've waited my whole life to play in the NHL," said the 22-year-old rookie who described his stint in the AHL as a "blessing in disguise."
"I had to wait half a year (to get to) this point, but I'm excited to play with all these guys."
Nick is, too. After waiting 113 days for the NHL and NHLPA to come to an agreement while the 30-year-old waited impatiently, regularly practicing with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, he's poised to get back at it.
"It's going to be strange coming in because we'll only have a week to prepare for games," he said. "It's going to be important for guys to come in, be focused and get after the system aspects of being under a new coach right away.
"We're all excited and very relieved that it's all over and we can get back to playing hockey."
"We're here playing now and we hope that the fans support us and they still love us like they used to," added Hall. "That's why me and Jordan signed here long-term, because we love playing here and we love the fans."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick