Can the New York Islanders win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup? Can Wayne Gretzky outdo even himself?
Any assessment of the young National Hockey League season starts with the Islanders and stops with Gretzky.
Only the great Montreal teams of 1955-60 and 1975-79 have won four straight Stanley Cups. The dynastic Islanders, who have been in the league a mere 10 years, could fail to repeat if they grow overconfident, but coach Al Arbour isn't likely to allow that.
''He's more intense than ever,'' says Bryan Trottier, the best all-around player in the game. ''He isn't letting us lapse into any bad habits.''
Neither is the Islander farm system, bursting with bright young prospects.
Says Trottier, ''If anybody lets down, management will bring up somebody from Indianapolis who can step right in without weakening the team. That's a great motivating force right there.''
Trottier is one of Arbour's four full-fledged superstars, the others being goaltender Billy Smith, 147-point scorer Mike Bossy, and Denis Potvin, who headlines the league's best defense. The signing of Potvin over the summer kept the Islanders roster from last season intact; not a change was made.
Take those four out of the lineup, though, and you still would be left with a contending team. The Islanders are deep, versatile, and magnificently balanced. They can beat you at their game or yours.
''They have more players than anyone else,'' says Edmonton's Gretzky, ''and their most talented players are among their hardest workers.''
Gretzky has dominated hockey's individual statistics the past three years as thoroughly as the Islanders have dominated the team play. Last year he set NHL records for goals (92), assists (120), and points (212), which is why his contract pays him $1 million a year.
What does the 21-year-old wunderkind do for his next act?
How about become the first 100-goal scorer?
''There'll be a lot of pressure on me to keep producing more,'' he says. ''And I know that every season is a fresh challenge. But my stats have always improved.''
Gretzky would settle for lesser statistics if Edmonton were to win the Stanley Cup. Last year the young Oilers led the overall league standings much of the way, but lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Los Angeles.
Edmonton has picked up Czech winger Jaroslav Pousar and former Philadelphia Flyer Ken Linseman, who should help.
Los Angeles, for its part, added the NHL's first Soviet skater, center Victor Nechaev.
The most spectacular off-season player shift saw Montreal send all-star defenders Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, among others, to Washington for Bryan Walter and Rick Green. ''For the first time in Capitals history,'' says Washington general manager Bud Poile hopefully, ''we have a defense.''
The most heralded rookies are forward Brian Bellows of Minnesota and Gord Kluzak of Boston, the No. 1 draft choice who is expected to pair with veteran Brad Park on defense. The strapping Kluzak, 6 ft. 4 in. and 220 lbs., became more immediately important in the Bruins' plans when Ray Bourque was lost for several weeks to an early season injury.
New coaches are Nick Polano at Detroit, Larry Kish at Hartford, Orval Tessier at Chicago, and Bob Johnson, from the University of Wisconsin, at Atlanta.
There are no new teams thankfully - 16 of 21 already make the playoffs - but the woebegone Colorado Rockies are now skating as the New Jersey Devils, and have joined the Patrick Division.
A last-place team by any other name is still a last-place team, but the Devils, led by ex-Islander goalie Chico Resch, are off to a surprisingly salubrious start. They managed seven points in their first six games, and own a much relished victory over the neighboring New York Rangers.
The Rangers, Devils, and Islanders give the Patrick Division a three-way metropolitan rivalry. The Adams Division will counter with probably the most overall strength; Boston, Montreal, Quebec, and Buffalo all figure to be better. If the Bruins can muster a productive power play, they could regain much of their past glory.
Edmonton is favored in the Smythe Division, Minnesota and St. Louis in the Norris.
The Islanders present a lofty target for all of them - and don't be amazed if Gretzky jumps over the moon.