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From phenoms to grand experiments: Answers to the essential questions

What's the lateston Sidney?

This was a bigoff-season for Sidney Crosby, old-fashioned in his modesty but a certifiablynew fashionista. The Penguins' 20-year-old center joined with Reebok to producea signature line of casual wear, Rbk SC87, while his work clothes got amakeover from the league (each club has new, sleeker uniforms with designtweaks) and a C was added--the perfect accessory for the aspiring hockey icon.In late May, Pittsburgh made Crosby (right) the youngest NHL captain ever,after he had led the league in scoring with 120 points (despite playing thelast four weeks on a broken foot) and taken the team to the playoffs for thefirst time since 2001.

In July, Crosbysigned a five-year, $43.5 million extension to stay with the Penguinsthrough 2012-13; his annual rate is roughly $1.3 million less than he couldhave gotten under cap rules, freeing money for the club to sign otherplayers.

Crosby was on theGretzky Track his first two seasons, putting up numbers not quite as startlingas Wayne Gretzky's but ones that traced a similar arc. The bar is out of sightfor season 3: Gretzky went from 55 goals and 164 points in his second yearto NHL records of 92 goals and 212 points in his third. Crosby can'tmatch that, but he can still lead Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup in a shorter spanthan the five seasons Gretzky needed to win the first of his four Cups inEdmonton.

Who's the nextwunderkind?

After beingspoiled by the virtuosity of Crosby, Capitals left wing Alexander Ovechkin andPenguins center Evgeni Malkin the past two seasons, fans must settle for a2007-08 rookie crop that's coated with grit instead of stardust. The topforward may be Chicago center Jonathan Toews, but a defenseman named Johnsonshould break the offensive players' hold on the rookie of the year award. Thequestion: Which Johnson?

The NHL is rarelya haven for 19-year-old defensemen, but the Blues' Erik Johnson (near left), a6' 4", 222-pound puck mover, is precocious. The top draft pick of 2006 hadfour goals and 10 points while being named best defenseman at the '07world junior championships. "He makes a good first pass," says St.Louis vice president Al MacInnis, a Hall of Fame defenseman, "and histransition game is strong." Then there's strong-willed Jack Johnson (farleft), no relation, of the Kings. The 20-year-old is the type who will leave amark--often one that's black and blue--and could be a hitter in the mode of theFlames' Dion Phaneuf once veteran teammate Rob Blake helps smooth the roughspots.

What's up withLondon?

The league openedits season with across-the-pond hockey last weekend. While shipping the AnaheimDucks and the Los Angeles Kings eight time zones away to London (that'sEngland, not London, Ont.) makes little sense on the surface, there was, asalways, an economic imperative. Phil Anschutz's entertainment group owns thenew arena, O2, in London. He also owns the Kings. That the Ducks are theStanley Cup champs, winning the title after the London games were set, was anadded fillip. The teams split the two games, both of which were sellouts.

Prague orStockholm might host season openers in coming years, and with the growingstrength of the Russian Super League and the 2008-09 start of a soccer-styleEuropean champions league for top club teams, the NHL, which has begun toruminate about expansion to Europe, needs to plant a flag. Said deputycommissioner Bill Daly, "We want to build a league platform that will helpus connect with our European fans."

Where's theroof?

Maybe it won't topthe quirky marriage of hype and hypothermia in November 2003--when the NHL'sfirst outdoor game, between the Canadiens and the Oilers in Edmonton, attracted57,167 fans despite temperatures so cold that beers turned into alcoholslushies--but the Jan. 1 game at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalobetween the Sabres and the Penguins (face-off, 1 p.m.) is a guaranteedsuccess.

• It will boastthe presence of Crosby.

• NBC will provideaerial shots from an airplane and as many cameras as it uses at a Stanley Cupfinal.

• The competingteams play a few hours' drive from each other, and the expected crowd of morethan 73,000 will approach the outdoor record set by Michigan and Michigan Stateat the Cold War at Spartan Stadium in 2001. This is not a one-off extravaganza.The Winter Classic seems destined to be an annual event and, the NHL says,could be played in Boston, Denver, Detroit, New York and the Twin Cities inyears to come.