Puck Daddy - NHL

Oh, hockey, how we missed thee.

Our winter mistress has returned to seduce us for another year of puck commencing tonight as the Washington Capitals visit the Boston Bruins and the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche will meet after Joe Sakic's(notes) No. 19 is raised to the rafters of the Pepsi Center.

The long wait is over and after 110 days since the last meaningful hockey game, the 2009-10 National Hockey League season is here. No more previews. No more replays of the Stanley Cup playoffs on NHL Network. No more predictions. (Well, save for the Puck Daddy Stanley Cup prognostications later on today).

With the season kicking off in just a few hours, we at Puck Daddy have some questions that we'd like to see answered as the season plays out.

After the jump, 11 burning questions for which die-hard puckheads want answers.

1. What's the over/under on the number of games that Marian Gaborik(notes) will play?

When New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather found a way to dump Scott Gomez'(notes) $7.35 million salary cap hit on Bob Gainey and the Montreal Canadiens, fans were beginning to think he'd finally come to his senses.

Two days later, Sather blew that hope out of the window when he reinvested Gomez's salary into Marian Gaborik.

Look, we all know what kind of player Gaborik is when healthy, and now Rangers fans have five years to wait and hope to see the former Minnesota Wild sniper overcome his injury problems and get back to posting 35-plus goal seasons on a regular basis.

2. Can anyone challenge Alexander Ovechkin(notes) for the Rocket Richard Trophy?

During Ovechkin's two Richard Trophy-winning seasons, the closet competition has been 10 goals away. Jeff Carter(notes) ended up with 46 last season and Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) with 52 the year before. The NHL is full of many talented goal scorers, but are any even near the level of what Ovechkin does on a nightly basis? 

Is Dany Heatley(notes) going to explode playing alongside Joe Thornton(notes) in San Jose? Now that Ilya Kovalchuk has some help again with Nik Antropov(notes), how much will he be aided? Will the Pittsburgh Penguins have Evgeni Malkin's(notes) parents front and center at every game so he can score at will?

Already at 219 goals at age 24, he's on pace to hit 500 not far after his car insurances rates will drop for one of his ridiculously expensive rides. The question regarding Ovechkin's talents is soon becoming not how many Richard trophies he's going to win, but how soon he'll challenge the goal scoring exploits of Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky.

3. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs total penalty minutes this season be larger then the total attendance of the Phoenix Coyotes' two home games against the Columbus Blue Jackets?

This one will just be fun to track throughout the season.

4. Is Steve Mason(notes) destined for the dreaded sophomore slump?

A feel-good story a year ago, Mason's rookie season ended with a playoff appearance, a Calder Trophy and the jealousy of millions after they saw his girlfriend at the NHL Awards show. Now that expectations have been raised in Columbus; can Mason build off his first NHL season and deliver again?

Three of the previous four goaltenders that have won the Calder Trophy have either improved their numbers or saw them slip marginally in their second season -- far from being described as a "sophomore slump." Evgeni Nabokov(notes), Martin Brodeur(notes) and Ed Belfour(notes) all worked out in their second seasons and eventually in the long run. Only Andrew Raycroft(notes) hasn't been able to regain his rookie year form on a consistent basis since.

Which group will Mason join after this season? He has a Stanley Cup winning coach with a defensive mind behind the bench and a top-10 defense in front of him. Odds are that Mason won't drop off, if any, and continue building his impressive young resume.

5. Like the Pittsburgh Penguins before them, can the Chicago Blackhawks use a bitter loss to take the next step?

When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost their opening round series to the Ottawa Senators in 2007, the overwhelming feeling from the media was that before Sidney Crosby(notes) and company could win a Stanley Cup, they would have to learn how to lose.

In their first foray into the playoffs, Patrick Kane(notes) and Jonathan Toews(notes) led Chicago to the Western Conference finals and were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup runners-up. Now that they have a deep playoff run under their belts, the Blackhawks need to prove that they're ready to challenge for a championship and that they should be considered among the elite teams in the Western Conference. With an off-season full of controversy, is there a sense of bad karma that will hover over them?

6. Will Ilya Kovalchuk decide to stay or go in Atlanta?

Kovalchuk could be the leader of one of the three following categories this season: Biggest upcoming unrestricted free agent. Biggest name trade deadline rental player. Savior of Atlanta hockey.

As Kovy enters the final year of his contract, the speculation will persist that he wants out of Atlanta and then the rumor mill will begin churning. Right now, the prospect of the Thrashers first overall pick from 2001 leaving town seems to be diminishing as time goes on. Kovalchuk requirement for him to stay in Atlanta was to see progress on the ice. Thrashers GM Don Waddell worked his hardest to make his franchise player feel comfortable by going out and signing Nik Antropov to play alongside the talented winger. It's now or ever for the Thrashers and if the team is unable to hover near a playoff spot, they'll likely see their captain leaving town.

7. How will John Tavares(notes) compare media impact in New York?

The New York media market is a tough nut to crack if you're involved in hockey. The New York Rangers take precedence because of their location within New York City, but unless you're winning a Stanley Cup or making a playoff run, finding yourself in the headlines ahead of the New York Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, and Knicks is tough, especially if you're the New York Islanders.

Unlike other highly touted rookies in New York sports, Tavares enters the sports scene there in relative obscurity. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez is currently the new media darling as he guides the undefeated New York Jets. Tavares is set to play in his first NHL game on Saturday night after a storied junior hockey career in Canada, and there likely won't be any extra media coverage about it than the norm.

With the future of the franchise on Long Island in doubt, the Islanders need their star rookie to produce and produce fast if they're to grab any buzz in the New York area. The New York Yankees are in the playoffs and the Jets and Giants are off to good starts. Something special will have to happen for the Islanders to break through those media barriers in the Big Apple.

8. How much of an impact will the Winter Olympics have on teams down the stretch?

When the NHL came back after the 2006 Olympics in Turin, two teams really felt the effects of having key players involved in the short tournament. The Ottawa Senators lost Dominik Hasek(notes) for the rest of the season after he was injured representing the Czech Republic and the New York Rangers saw a tired Henrik Lundqvist(notes) return after winning a gold medal for Sweden. Despite the 2010 Games being played locally in Vancouver, many of the league's star players will likely be playing deep into the tournament, giving cause for concern for many NHL teams who do not want to see their high-priced talent return nursing injuries.

When the NHL resumes play on March 1, there will be just over a month remaining in the season. Will tired legs and injuries affect teams down the stretch or further into the playoffs?

9. Will the Russians spoil the Olympic homecoming party for Team Canada?

Over the course of the next three months, we'll be hearing about how the gold medal in Vancouver is Team Canada's to lose. Sure, they have enough world class talent to enter two teams into the tournament, but as we saw in Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006, all the talent in the world on paper doesn't mean anything if on-ice product fails. The Canadians' main competition for gold will likely be the Russians, who will ice an incredibly dangerous lineup featuring the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin(notes), Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk(notes). If Canada can win gold on home ice, the celebrations will be immense, but every player knows that the pressure on them to deliver will be massive.

They'll be a loose group, playing with nothing but pride and less pressure than the Canadians. There's nothing more that Team Russia wants to do than defend a gold medal in 2014 in Sochi.

10. Which coaches are on the hot seat?

Predicting who will be the first coach to be fired is always a fun game to play. Unfortunately, last season Barry Melrose Denis Savard made the game way too easy and ended things before we could really even start playing. The '09-10 season brings us a new crop of candidates that could find themselves waiting in the wings for next season's group of fired coaches to lose their jobs.

• In Atlanta, the clock is ticking on the team to show progress and for John Anderson to right the ship. Not only do their hopes for the playoffs rest on it, but also the future of franchise player Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta. Anderson won't have much of a rope left if he can't move the Thrashers forward. 

The pressure is on John Stevens in Philadelphia to deliver a Stanley Cup after the team's off-seasons additions and preseason hype. Can he harness the physical makeup of the Philadelphia Flyers roster and make it positively affect the team's production?

Barry Trotz has been the only coach the Nashville Predators have ever known in their ten seasons in the NHL and while the team has made the playoffs four teams, they've yet to advance out of the first round. How much longer until Predators fans desire a new direction?

11. Will there finally be a fight at this year's Winter Classic?

There have been three outdoor games in NHL history and not one has featured a fighting major on the scoresheet. With the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins participating in this year's event, we're guaranteed a scrap, right? Isn't that why we have the Flyers and Bruins involved?

Imagine how loud Fenway Park would be if Zdeno Chara(notes) dropped the mittens with Chris Pronger(notes) or Riley Cote(notes) at center ice?

Since Ray Emery(notes) will be involved, why not a full-on 12-man brawl? We all know it doesn't take much to set off Tim Thomas(notes), and Emery enjoys fighting with a smile.

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