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The NHL season starts today. Here are 4 storylines to follow as hockey begins

Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, two leading MVP candidates who both play for returning champs the Colorado Avalanche.
Justin Edmonds
Getty Images
Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, two leading MVP candidates who both play for returning champs the Colorado Avalanche.

Will the Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup? Or is this finally Toronto's year? Will any of hockey's all-time records be broken? And how will the NHL answer to a wave of allegations and concerns about sexual assault?

The NHL season begins tonight, and the league is looking to have a complete, uninterrupted season for the first time since the pandemic began. (The 2020 and 2021 seasons were shortened due to scheduling concerns, and last year's season was interrupted by a week-long break when the omicron variant swept across nearly every team in the league.)

Here are some stories to watch for this year:

Will the Colorado Avalanche run it back?

Last year's Stanley Cup winners, the Colorado Avalanche, begin the season as the odds-on favorites to win the championship. They return most of the core who helped propel the team to their first Stanley Cup in two decades, toppling the returning champs Tampa Bay to do so.

In hockey, it's been common in recent years for winners to repeat. The Tampa Bay Lightning won back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021, following the Pittsburgh Penguins who pulled it off in 2016 and 2017.

The Avalanche have lost a couple key players since winning the Cup, including their goalie, Darcy Kuemper.

But they return two MVP candidates in Nathan MacKinnon, a superlative center, and Cale Makar, the standout defenseman who is at or near the top of the league in practically every scoring statistic for defensive players. Makar could become the first defenseman to win the award in more than 20 years.

Or could this be the year for the long-hapless Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs have long been the butt of the joke in the NHL. Even though the team has the second most Stanley Cups in league history, they won their last in the 1960s.

Since then, the Leafs have gone 54 seasons and counting without a championship, by far the longest-ever drought in the league's history. The team hasn't won a playoff series in 17 years.

Now, they're behind only the Avalanche in the odds to win the Cup. They have the league's top scorer, 25-year-old center Auston Matthews, who had 60 goals last season, along with six-time All-Star center John Tavares leading the offense.

On the other hand, the Maple Leafs are the Maple Leafs: They've been playoff material for years now and still haven't managed to win a series – including last year, when they had the fourth best record in the league.

But if they can pull it off, it'll be the first time since 1993 that a Canadian team has won the Cup.

Will Ovechkin move into second place in the all-time goals record?

Baseball isn't the only sport with historic record chases.

Alex Ovechkin, the generational forward who has led the Washington Capitals since 2005, has scored 780 goals over his career.

Last March, Ovechkin moved into third place, reigniting interest over the possibility he could catch hockey GOAT Wayne Gretzky, who holds the all-time career scoring record.

Currently, Ovechkin is 114 goals behind Gretzky, who retired in 1999 after a 20-season career. Ovechkin, 37, has played 17 seasons so far. Last year, he scored 50 goals over 77 games – a pace that, if he's able to keep it up, would put him ahead of Gretzky if he retires after his 20th season.

Barring a major injury, Ovechkin is almost certain to move into second place this season and become just the third player of all time to score more than 800 career goals. And it's possible he could take the lead next year, or more likely, in the '23-'24 season.

How will hockey handle problems with sexual misconduct?

The season is starting at a moment when the sport of hockey is roiling anew over allegations of sexual assault, dredging up questions and criticisms about "hockey culture" and whether the sport fosters an environment for misogyny, assault and racism.

The latest developments are this: Canada's hockey governing organization, Hockey Canada, is currently mired in scandal over paying millions of dollars in settlements to victims of sexual assault by past members of the country's junior national team. That included an incident in 2018 in which eight players, whose names are sealed by a court, were said to sexually assault a woman who later sued the organization.

While the accused men have not been publicly named, a number of the players who played on the 2018 squad are currently active in the NHL, and the league has been investigating their involvement.

Separately, on Friday, a user on Twitter by the name "Emily Smith" accused Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ian Cole of grooming and sexually assaulting her when she was a teenager. The accuser's identity has not been verified.

Cole has denied the allegations. Tampa Bay has suspended him while officials conduct an investigation. "Our organization takes these allegations very seriously," the team said in a statement.

They're joined by a few smaller-profile incidents, including the Montreal Canadiens' acquisition of a rookie who was convicted of secretly photographing a sexual partner then sharing that photograph with teammates, and an Edmonton Oilers developmental league athletic trainer fired over misconduct charges.

And it's all coming less than a year after the Chicago Blackhawks settled a lawsuit with a former player who was sexually assaulted by an assistant coach during the team's Stanley Cup season in 2010.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.