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Sean Leahy

The 11 burning questions puckheads are asking about new season

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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It's been 119 days since Patrick Kane's(notes) goal won the Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks. One hundred nineteen long days.

We sweated out the month of July waiting on news of the Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) contract.

We sat through the dog days of August ... waiting on news of Ilya Kovalchuk's contract rejection.

We barely entered September, and finally the Summer of Kovalchuk ended.

Now, after all that, we've arrived here, one day before the 2010-11 season begins. Hockey is back and our lives can get back to normal. NHL Center Ice or GameCenter Live has been ordered. Our summer jersey purchases have come in the mail. And our Saturday night will now involve Ron MacLean and a crazy old man who wears suits that match your grandma's shower curtain.

As we sit a day before the puck drops for real, we have 11 questions we want answers to as the season goes on.

After the jump, 11 burning questions puckheads are asking.

1. Will an NHL Premiere Games participant and the visiting team in the Winter Classic once again meet in the Stanley Cup Finals?

In 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins played the Ottawa Senators in Sweden. In January of 2009, the Detroit Red Wings played the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in the Winter Classic. Last fall, the Chicago Blackhawks traveled to Helsinki and swept the two-game series with the Florida Panthers, while in January, the Philadelphia Flyers lost in overtime to the Boston Bruins at Fenway Park.

That's two years in a row a team that began their season in Europe played all the way until June, and three straight seasons the road team in the NHL's annual outdoor game made the finals. Had the 2007 Premiere Games participants Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks met the Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, then this little quirky streak would could happen for a fourth consecutive season.

So if the Premiere-Winter Classic combo is to happen again, then the Washington Capitals will meet the Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks or Phoenix Coyotes in the 2011 finals. And going by the finals outcome for the three visiting Classic teams, the Capitals will lose.

2. Forget about the regular season: What will the Washington Capitals do in the playoffs?

The Washington Capitals have reached the point in their current state that the regular season is just a warm-up for April, May and June.

They've dominated the Southeast Division three years in a row and look to add a fourth straight division title to their mantle this year. High expectations now lay on the shoulders of the team; and after last year's disappointing playoff exit it really is a "Stanley Cup or bust" year.

Washington has its core players like Alex Ovechkin(notes), Nicklas Backstrom(notes) and Mike Green(notes) locked up for a while, so they'll certainly continue to be competitive in the future. But with so much talent up and down the roster, there will come a point when, if there's still no Cup to show, change will be inevitable -- whether that's on the ice, behind the bench or in the manager's box.

3. Will Colin Campbell again be consistent in his inconsistency in handing out supplemental discipline?

Three things hockey fans will continue to be enraged about this season: Crosby/Ovechkin coverage, VERSUS and whether or not a suspension was justified, along with the length of the punishment.

The infamous "Wheel of Justice" has caused hockey fans to throw up their arms when a dangerous hit or play occurs during a game. It used to be easy to spot as a suspension. That ability no longer exists. From the excuses of players not being prior offenders, and getting off scot-free, to similar plays resulting in different (if any) punishment, we just don't know what to expect anymore when a player gets hit from behind or gets kneed or even takes a shoulder or elbow to the head.

Gary Bettman praised Campbell this week saying he believes the NHL's czar of discipline does an "extraordinary good job". An extraordinary good job spinning a wheel can best be displayed here:

4. Who will end up the long-term starting goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers?

A year ago, the Flyers were a popular Stanley Cup pick. Sure enough, they took the Chicago Blackhawks to six games, but with Michael Leighton(notes) as their goaltender -- not the man who was slated to be in net when everyone made their predictions, Ray Emery(notes).

The goaltender question has been hovering around the Flyers organization since Bill Clement took his shirt off for OFF! commercials and the days of Ron Hextall. But despite that, Philadelphia has been one of the NHL's more consistent teams in that span. After a five-year playoff drought in the early 1990's, the Flyers qualified for the postseason 14 of the last 15 years, including two Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1997 and 2010, and more often than not, they've gotten out of the first round.

So, of course because their goaltending corps heading into this season lists names like "Michael Leighton," "Brian Boucher," "Johan Backlund" and potentially "Sergei Bobrovsky" because GM Paul Holmgren didn't go out and grab a "name" netminder like Tomas Vokoun(notes), Marty Turco(notes), Antti Niemi(notes), or bring back Martin Biron(notes), the never-ending joke about their crease issues will continue ... until a Cup is raised in June.

5. Smaller pads for some goaltenders = more goals?

Goalies will now be wearing pads that are proportional to their body size. The more athletic the position has come, the more the playing field has been leveled between tall and short goalies. Goals won't necessarily increase to dramatic levels, but no longer will shorter goaltenders be able to wear longer pads that cover more space between their legs than taller netminders.

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6. How big will the television ratings be for the Winter Classic on NBC?

Love it or hate it, you knew that at some point, the Winter Classic would eventually feature Sidney Crosby(notes) and Alex Ovechkin. It was inevitable when the two began their meteoric rise and the Jan. 1 outdoor game began drawing huge ratings. Now, with the NHL's television deal expiring after this season, the league is putting all of its chips in and banking on a mega-rating thanks to their two young stars. And they'll get it. Easily.

Even before the NHL and HBO announced the "24/7" show, the game would attract the casual and non-hockey fans because of its uniqueness and, especially this year, star power. Now that there will be a four-week cable show bringing viewers inside the lives of the players on and off the ice, the buzz will be off the charts in late December. Who knows how huge the ratings will be for the Dec. 23 matchup between the two?

The 2011 Winter Classic falls on a Saturday afternoon. A perfect time for those to not only nurse their hangovers from the night before, but add to them throughout the weekend. Jan. 1 isn't what it used to be for college football, as hockey is beginning to own the day; and what better way to stamp your arrival than by bringing the superstar draw.

Which brings us to ...

7. How much of the uniqueness of the outdoor game will be taken away due to the addition of the Heritage Classic?

Outdoor hockey games are all the rage these days. Whether it's the minor leagues, college hockey, European hockey or games in baseball stadiums, football stadiums, or even glaciers, everyone wants to host an outdoor game. It was only a matter of time before the NHL's outdoor game expanded outside of NBC and America and into Canada.

There's always been the fear that expanding the outdoor game will knock some of the shine off of what's now become an NHL tradition of the Jan. 1 game. Now that Montreal and Calgary will be meeting in February, is it too much of a good thing or, since Canadian teams are finally involved, just right? Considering the Winter and Heritage classics are spread out, it may not be as terrible as many believe.

With the rise of the outdoor game on every level of hockey, the "wow, that's a cool idea" thought is long gone. The outdoor game is now about presentation, how it looks in HD, how much cash it'll bring in, and the stadium experience for the fan. Two a year, involving different teams consistently, with one focusing on the six Canadian clubs could keep the games interesting and appealing to not just the casual fan, but the hardcore hockey fan, the league's most important demographic.

8. Is the Norris Trophy Drew Doughty's(notes) to lose?

We've been so programmed over the years to make Detroit Red Wings blue liner Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) the de facto Norris winner heading into the season. With Zdeno Chara(notes) and Duncan Keith(notes) knocking Lidstrom from his throne, the field is now wide open on who will be named the NHL's best defenseman.

After exceeding expectations with the Los Angeles Kings last season, Drew Doughty is the consensus favorite to be that next best defenseman in the league. A finalist for the Norris in June, Doughty will be able to build off of a breakout year that saw him score 13 times and log 25 minutes a night for the Kings. Factor in the two weeks he spent surrounded by experienced, veteran makeup of Team Canada during their gold medal run and Doughty, still just 20 years old, is poised to become the second-youngest Norris winner behind Bobby Orr.

But there'll be plenty of competition with Keith, Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Mike Green, Chris Pronger(notes) and Tyler Myers(notes) among the notable names that will likely be contention.

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9. Jaroslav Halak(notes) is a Blue. Carey Price(notes) remains a Canadien. Which Pierre Gauthier decision will prove to be the right one?

The biggest question last spring in Montreal was which goaltender would survive the summer. Just before the NHL draft in June, the question was answered when the Canadiens dealt Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues and eventually re-signed Carey Price to a two-year extension. Halak would ink a four-year deal a few weeks after being traded.

Pierre Gauthier took over for Bob Gainey as Habs GM last February and his first big decision in charge might also become his most important. The pressure on Price playing in Montreal has already affected him at times and while he's still young and has some maturing to do, the littlest of mistakes will be enlarged under the microscope of the Montreal fans and media.

Halak now leaves Jacques Martin's system, from which both he and the Canadiens benefited. He'll also have a younger defense in front of him, but a pretty good one that was ranked 11th in the NHL last season. Should Halak falter, the Blues can also rely on Ty Conklin(notes) to fill in. Should Carey Price struggle, it's, well, Alex Auld(notes) time.

10. Will the Phoenix Coyotes fall back to earth this season?

Sure, maybe Ryan Lambert and Five for Howling's Travis Hair were the only two that had the Coyotes pegged as a playoff team last season, but who would have thought they'd shatter franchise records (thanks loser point!) en route to a 50-win, 107-point season? There's no way they match or surpass that number this year, right?

Phoenix lost their top shutdown defender in Zbynek Michalek(notes), but added Ray Whitney(notes) to help the offense. Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) was Hart Trophy worthy with 42 wins and compiled eight shutouts. They'll bring back Scottie Upshall(notes) who was on his way to a career year before tearing his ACL in January. Wojtek Wolski(notes) and Lee Stempniak(notes) helped the team take 28 points out of a possible 36 after they were acquired at the trade deadline.

A lot went right for the Coyotes since last spring and Year 2 under head coach Dave Tippett could ensure that the career years had by many last year on the roster won't prove to be flashes in the pan.

11. Finally, what percentage of television viewers will suffer eye damage while watching Coach's Corner on Hockey Night in Canada in 3D?

If these fine fashions displayed by Don Cherry weren't damaging enough to your retinas, imagine them in 3D.

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Oh, the horror!

Cherry suit pics provided by the wonderful people at Don Cherry Jacket Watch who are doing the Lord's work.

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