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Crystal oddball predictions

The good old crystal ball looks a little worse for wear this season -- I think the kids used it for backyard bowling over the summer -- but the warranty ensures that it'll take a licking and keep on kicking out predictions. Besides, it was made in China, so you know the quality is unquestionable.

During the course of training camp, I spent countless hours with the mysterious orb, trying to divine secrets about the new season. Kinda gave me a headache, but if Braydon Coburn can take 55 stitches to the left eye and come back, I figured I'd better fight through the pain, too.

So, what manner of secrets did the old ball reveal about your favorite team? Read on ...

Despite a hot and heavy romance with Lightning boss Oren Koules, Melrose is under immediate pressure to prove that he has what it takes to manage a modern NHL bench after more than a decade of looking smart in the studio. He inherited a team that has been rebuilt on last season's ashes and looks to have chemistry issues that would befuddle Osamu Shimomura. But with all those high profile acquisitions come high expectations. If the picture doesn't come into focus by Christmas, Melrose may regret the decision to leave the cozy confines of the broadcast booth.

All it takes is one look at this team's roster -- and that ludicrous new third jersey -- to recognize that this has the makings of a rather long season. Outside of Ilya Kovalchuk, there is not a single player here who can repeat as a 20-goal scorer. And the reconstituted defense, while faster and more offensively oriented, looks like a nightmare for goalie Kari Lehtonen and his snap-happy groin. Now nine years into a five-year plan, the Thrashers are nowhere near to competing for a playoff spot, let alone the Stanley Cup.

See above ... and below.

Coburn's breakout won't be made obvious by inflated point totals, although he should top last season's 36. Instead, he'll assert himself as Philly's top defenseman by making better decisions with the puck while reducing his mistakes that arise from overly aggressive play. He'll earn a spot in the All-Star Game, prompting GM Paul Holmgren to send a thank-you card and flowers to Waddell for gifting Coburn to the Flyers in a Feb. 2007 deal for Alexei Zhitnik.

The Avs' Wolski benefited from strength and conditioning efforts over summer, adding 10 pounds of muscle that will make him more effective along the boards and out in front. His sweat and toil also earned him a spot as Joe Sakic's wingman, which shouldn't hurt Wolski's point totals. And, if nothing else, he won't have to deal with regular accommodations in the doghouse of his now ex-coach, Joel Quenneville.

After two seasons of teasing coaches and Bruins fans with his shootout prowess and occasional bursts of five-on-five creativity, Kessel enters his contract year with something to prove. Playing alongside Patrice Bergeron, and with his good buddy Blake Wheeler around to keep him honest, he'll have no excuses not to produce impressively.

It was bad enough that the badly aging singer for Def Leppard placed the Stanley Cup upside down during Thursday night's live NHL Face-Off Rocks broadcast, but when the star of the ill-conceived event tried to cover up his faux pas by saying, "Nevermind. We're soccer boys. What do we know?" weren't we all disappointed that McCarty didn't pull the jacket up over Elliott's head and offer him the choice of one lump or two? If McCarty won't drop 'em over a clear violation of the code like that, it's no wonder he wasn't in uniform on opening night.

At least we can take solace in knowing it's all uphill from here for the league's marketing department. Unless, of course, they've booked another relevant act, like Sergio Mendes and Brazil '77 or Cibo Mato, for All-Star Weekend.

This one will succeed despite going largely unnoticed, a sure sign that it's the right course of action. Too often last season, teams would ice the puck with a TV timeout coming up, knowing they'd get the artificial break to rest weary skaters. This rule removes that option and, at least theoretically, increases the chances of scoring on tired troops.

You kidding? Who wouldn't want to play for a team that puts the kibosh on bag skates, hard runs, stair climbs or any other off-ice activity that taxes the heart and body? If only Kyle Wellwood had heard about this before signing with the Canucks.

It's impossible not to recognize the depth of the Stars and the bold moves by the Sharks, but something tells me that the veteran Ducks, armed with full seasons from Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne and motivated to erase the embarrassment of last season's showing, are going to be far more effective than we think.

It's obvious they're building something special in the Windy City, but maybe we all need to tap the brakes a bit. After all, this team is incredibly young (eight players with fewer than 100 games of NHL service). It's thin down the middle, and it has little in the way of forward depth. No arguing that the Hawks will be one of the most exciting teams to watch, but given the stiff competition in the West, it's a bit premature to start printing playoff tickets.

The one-year deal he signed this summer simply started the clock ticking on his tenure with the Panthers. He's said that his decision will be based on how well the team performs, so expect him to make his position known after the Christmas break. To the right team -- the Flyers, maybe? -- J-Bo will be worth a proven NHL player, a top-tier prospect and a first- rounder.

Roberto Luongo is bogarting the attention, but of all the players wearing the C (on their sweater or helmet) for the first time, none will adapt more readily to the role than Brown. A Brenden Morrow starter kit, Brown is the King most qualified to lead by example. That'll be the key to this team's success. If Los Angeles is to start down that long road back to respectability, it will require a total commitment to team defense. With the hard-nosed and highly competitive Brown buying in, the rest of the squad has no choice but to follow.

Sorry, Sudbury. With the Russians playing hardball on a rights transfer agreement, the first overall pick in this summer's CHL Import Draft is unlikely to pull on Wolves clothing this season. That could turn out to be a blessing for the Blue Jackets. Instead of sending the dynamic Filatov to juniors -- where he would be stuck all season -- the Jackets were able to assign him to Syracuse of the AHL. Given time to allow a hairline fracture in his leg to heal, and to build up the conditioning that the injury stole, he'll be ready to make a significant contribution to the Columbus offense before Christmas.

Horcoff hasn't been bad these past two seasons, but he hasn't lived up to his paper. A 73-point man during Edmonton's charmed 2005-06 season, he slumped to 50 and 51 points the past two years. This season's Oilers will offer a more balanced offensive attack, and with Ales Hemsky and Erik Cole manning his wings, Horcoff should flourish.

Anyone who witnessed the frightening spectacle of Bergeron laying limp early last season, the victim of a Randy Jones cheapshot, has to be amazed to see him back in Boston's lineup. Bergeron has been pronounced fit for duty, so expectations are high that he'll pick up where he left off as the team's most complete player. He should end up close to a point-per-game, as well as the defensive conscience of the Bruins.

Some will write Burns off as a beneficiary of Minnesota's system, but he'll establish himself as one of the game's best two-way defenders this season. On the heels of his breakout 2007-08 campaign, Getzlaf will approach 100 points and challenge for the Art Ross. Boedker may be overshadowed by teammate Kyle Turris, but that didn't stop a pair of Hawks from competing for the Calder last season. Boedker has 20-goal potential and is expected to play the point on the power play. How often is a rookie forward given that responsibility?

After scoring just two goals and six points in a 27-game rookie campaign, it's unlikely that the name of the Dartmouth-trained winger was called out in any fantasy leagues that didn't involve one of his immediate family members. Nice break for you. The 6-foot 2-inch Jones, now 210 pounds after a summer of hard conditioning with Colorado's strength coach, earned a spot alongside Sakic and Wolski on the Avs' top line. His size and aggressive style should gain you a few penalty minutes as well. He might even earn a chance to get rid of that training camp jersey number.

His 38 points led all rookie defensemen in scoring, and he deserved significant consideration from Calder voters. But Enstrom struggled mightily as the season wore down, broken by an oppressive workload that typically topped 24 minutes per night. This year's Thrashers are a bit deeper on the back end, but he'll still struggle to meet expectations on a team that's circling the drain.

It's not often that four players are selected in the same class, but with a quartet of undeniable first-year eligibles, this is about as safe a bet as Sean Avery hitting the over on F-bombs issued. It looks as though Pavel Bure, Sergei Makarov, Alexander Mogilny, Adam Oates, Doug Gilmour and Mike Richter will have to wait at least one more year.

With just more than $3 million to fiddle with or burn, the Senators will have to move a few pieces to accommodate the recalcitrant Swede. But given how adroitly he'd address Ottawa's long-standing desire for secondary scoring, and how comfortable he is in Ontario, the Sens are the most logical landing place for the game's most outstanding free agent.

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