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My annual wheels-off predictions

There's not much you can count on these days. A deeply polarized political landscape, sure. The greatness of Tracy Morgan? Unquestionably. A bad Mike Ribeiro hair cut? No doubt.

How about one more: the infallibility of my trusty crystal ball.

Freshly glazed and recalibrated over the summer, it knows all and tells all. And over the course of the last few days, this mystical orb has given up secrets of the players, personalities and events that will define the 2010-11 NHL season.

Spoiler alert: read no further if you don't want to know how the season will play out...or where Alex Ovechkin's disembodied head will show up next.

First coach to be asked, "Uh, can you come up to my office, please?": Randy Carlyle, Anaheim Ducks

There are a lot of factors to consider when judging the Ducks this season -- lack of depth up front, a paper-thin blueline and the discipline of a toddler quickly come to mind -- but if this team continues to struggle, it will be Carlyle who pays the price. Fair? Probably not. Granted, he deserves some of the blame for not reining in the selfish play that's crippled the Ducks the past couple of years, but then again, I'm not sure the ghost of Reg Dunlop could do much with this crew. So maybe after five successful seasons (180-107-41), it's possible that some of the key members of this club would benefit from a different voice. And hey, it's not like GM Bob Murray's going to take the fall for building a team that seems to be incompatible with Carlyle's coaching style.

Oh, and the crystal ball also says that Carlyle will land another coaching job before the start of next season.

First group of fans to secretly hope their team never, ever scores again: Islanders ticket holders

Looking to establish a new identity, the Isles have changed their celebratory goal song this season to the execrable "Live Is Life" by Opus. Apparently, JoBoxers wanted too much for the rights to "Just Got Lucky."

First player to 20 goals: Phil Kessel

Sure, the hockey gods like having their fun with the Leafs -- hey, any team that signs the freshly waived Jeff Finger to a four-year, $14 million deal is asking for it -- but things have a way of evening out in the end. Since they're due a break, look for it to come in the form of a fast-starting Kessel. Healthy and blessed with a few easy marks in the early schedule, Kessel will give Toronto fans a reason to forget that Nazem Kadri isn't their No. 1 center.

Least likely 20-goal scorer: Cal Clutterbuck

More than just the preferred faux cuss word of my six-year-old, Clutterbuck is the sort of player who'll charge the net with reckless abandon and allow teammates to bounce slappers in off his backside. With a dozen or so deflections to his credit, he'll achieve the milestone for the first time in his career.

The three most surprising places that Alex Ovechkin's laughing disembodied head will show up:

A Simpsons' couch gag. The musical guest on the opening night of the new Conan O'Brien show. Next to Cigar Guy.

Concept that needs to be rebooted more than Spiderman: NHL Premiere

When McDonald's wants to draw a crowd to a restaurant, they don't trot out an appearance by Mayor McCheese. So why on earth would the NHL think they could send pulses pounding in Europe with contests featuring the Coyotes, Wild and Hurricanes? The NBA wants to make some noise overseas, they send marquee franchises like the Lakers and the Knicks (yeah, they suck, but at least they're a brand name). The NHL has to stop thinking in terms of "Hey, the Stars have three Swedes -- book 'em for Stockholm!" and start thinking about real stars. The NHL will finally catch on and give Moscow the Capitals and Penguins while Paris gets Montreal and Toronto.

Most likely to need the services of a qualified realtor on or before deadline day: Tomas Vokoun

There have been nights during the past few seasons -- too many of them, actually -- where Vokoun was all that separated the Panthers from an above-average AHL squad. But with the arrival of new GM Dale Tallon and the commitment to a patient and orchestrated rebuild in Florida, there's no reason to hold on to the capable veteran for dear life. He's entering the final year of a contract that pays him $5.7 million. That's much too rich for a team in the Panthers' situation, but it's an amount that could be absorbed for a couple months by a contender looking for a stable presence between the pipes. Even if the return isn't a bonanza, the chance to clear cap space, and a roster spot for phenom Jacob Markstrom, makes this an obvious move for the Panthers.

NHL owner most likely to end up as the target of taunting fan video: Tom Hicks

If Ian McCulloch of Echo and The Bunnymen has turned on him, can Hellyeah's Vinnie Paul be far behind? Now that the video by disgruntled Liverpool FC supporters has gone viral, don't be surprised to see a version emanating from Dallas before long. The Stars have long been the red-headed stepchild of Hicks' sports "empire," but now that their sale has hit the skids amid reports that Hicks is looking for an outrageous $450 million, it's clear that there's no happy ending in sight for fans of this underfunded club. Dallas has proven itself willing to support even a reasonably successful team, but it's getting to the point where it will take announcer Bill Oellermann less time to introduce the fans than the players. Maybe Tom should just go ahead and ask his service provider to block YouTube. It worked for China.

Player most likely to earn the first double-digit suspension of the season: James Wisniewski

He's not just the guy who redefined class though his congenial banter with Sean Avery. He's also a player who is willing to run an ex-teammate from behind just to let him know that he's in the neighborhood. Wisniewski's willingness to play a physical style that forces the opposition to keep their heads on a swivel is the reason he's one of my favorites, but it's also an approach that leads him to cross the bounds of decency on occasion. Add in the frustration of playing for the Islanders and it's only a matter of time before he goes Mel Gibson on someone.

Day that Florida Panthers fans stop counting wins and start worrying about lottery balls: Feb. 19

The Cats announced this week that they've surpassed season ticket sales of 10,000 for the first time in almost 10 years, and considering the product, you don't need the crystal ball to understand that they've got a director of sales who's up for a raise. If you can't sell wins, sell hope, eh? Fortunately, they'll have a lot to hope for after a three-game stretch against the Sharks, Flyers and Red Wings that will put their season out of its misery and direct their focus on Sean Couturier, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Adam Larsson.

The season's first blockbuster trade will involve: Brad Richards

Crazy for the Stars to give up their premier offensive talent? The man who makes their power play pop? Sure...until you consider the situation. Richards is in the final year of a contract that pays him $7.8 million per. He's unlikely to match that on his next deal, but he won't be a bargain, either...especially not for a team whose owner could be shopping for clothes at Barrels-R-Us the way things are going. If the Stars can't afford to re-up Richards, and the rebuilding club is unlikely to make the playoffs, a deal for picks, prospects and someone else's expiring contract makes sense.

Players most likely to pull a Pavel: Anze Kopitar and Patrick Kane

After watching former Lady Byng-winner Datsyuk drop his gloves -- against a fairly experienced Corey Perry, no less -- it's only a matter of time before the rest of the league's tea sippers decide they want to earn a little man-cred of their own. Look for Kopitar to ignite Kane's fury by calling him a bad tipper on Nov. 27.

Player you'll wish you'd taken in your fantasy draft: Sergei Bobrovsky

Two things were guaranteed to happen in every draft this season: 1) someone missed the news that Mark Streit is out for months and thought he had himself a steal when he snagged the Isles defender in the sixth round; 2) both Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher were drafted some time after Ken Wreggett. Perfectly good reason for that: the Flyers tandem is about eight months away from becoming above-average beer league stoppers. Philly Bob doesn't necessarily have to be better than them to hold onto the starting job. He just has to be someone different. And playing behind that team, he'll win you a few games.

FARBER:What about Bob?

Area most likely to stage a run on tinfoil hats: northern New Jersey

A summer spent under investigation by the NHL for the Ilya Kovalchuk contract. A fall under the microscope of the NHLPA for dressing 15 skaters. A winter as the target of the Southern Baptist Convention. You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you, right?

Least observed holiday: Hockey Day in America, Feb. 20

They had to move it from the original date of Feb. 2 for fear that it would be overshadowed by National Change Your Windshield Wipers Day.

Stanley Cup Champs: The Detroit Red Wings.

Seriously.

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