When NYPD Blue kicks off its ninth season tonight (9-11 pm/ET), one of last May's biggest cliffhangers will be resolved: What happened to Rick Schroder's Det. Danny Sorenson? A source close to the show confirms widespread speculation that with Schroder off the ABC cop drama, Blue producers decided to send his troubled character on a stairway to heaven. "They find his body decomposed," the insider whispers to TV Guide Online. "So, apparently, a long time has passed since he died."

Asked about the DOA chatter, executive producer Bill Clark reveals only that the Silver Spoons alum will definitely not appear on the show this season. Why? "I think that would have been a bit of a disservice to Mark-Paul [Gosselaar]," he explains, referring to the former Saved by the Bell star, who was recruited as Schroder's successor. "We're starting with a new season, we're starting with a new character. We don't need [Rick] to pay off the story arc. If we did, we would have [brought him back].

"Rick made a choice where he wanted to pursue his ranch, his family, and that's fine," he continues. "As is the nature of this business, when you have numerous castmembers, you try to service all of them. And now that Rick's left, we have to bring on new people and pay them off."

And Clark is quick to point out that although Schroder and Gosselaar bear a physical resemblance — not to mention a child star past — their Blue characters are polar opposites. "I don't know if we ever really knew who Rick's character was, and I think with this fella Mark, you're really going to get the sense of a real prince of a guy," he reveals. "[Former executive producer] David [Milch] put a lot of demons in [Danny's] head that we're going to try and avoid this time around."

Still, look for sparks to fly between Gosselaar's alter ego — John Clark Jr. — and Dennis Franz's prickly Sipowicz. "He's a young officer who quickly becomes, under a unique set of circumstances, a detective," Blue co-creator Stephen Bochco previews. "And that promotion is complicated by the fact that he's got a father who's a detective in the Bronx and who is a contemporary of Sipowicz's, and [the two of them] genuinely dislike each other. So it's an interesting and complex triangular relationship in which this young man is torn between a very opinionated and tough-minded father and an equally opinionated and tough-minded mentor."