Hodge: Columnist peers into his NHL crystal ball

My foolish and sometimes embarrassing October ritual continues—publicly penning preposterous predictions on the new NHL season.

The obvious danger when publicly pontificating such imperative topics as who will win the Stanley Cup is that the predictions will be wrong. Regardless of how one makes those predictions (too many crystal balls —or not enough of other kinds) one cannot take them back once they are printed.

Apparently my annual NHL predictions often wind up hanging on a few beer fridges of other hockey fans around the valley who take great pleasure in chuckling me come season end.

In truth, for some sad pathetic reason I find this all highly amusing. Once in a while I get the guessing game right though, and then joyfully strut about like I actually knew what I was prattling on about.

Major changes to the overall league divisional structure this year, including realigning the five divisions into four, will make for a very interesting and spirited new season. The top three teams in each division will make the playoffs (instead of top four) with the top two seeded remaining teams in each conference filling the final two spots.

The various changes improve travel plans, align time zones for game scheduling, and create or reconnect old time or long overdue team rivalries.

For instance, Detroit and Columbus move to the Eastern Conference and Winnipeg to the West, meaning the Wings get to battle old time rival Toronto, Boston, and Montreal regularly and Columbus now gets to pop over the border and play Minnesota several times a year. The newly configured Pacific Division is accessible by train.

Goaltending will once again be a tipping point deciding team’s regular season and playoff success. No team might prove that theory more than Vancouver whose confusing gamble in the summer of sending Corey Schneider to New Jersey  and keeping enigma Roberto Luongo may blow up in their face.

The unexpected scenario almost begs for a bizarre income such as Luongo going down with a lengthy injury and the suddenly depleted goaltending corps collapsing. If that’s the case the Canucks may be hard pressed to make the playoffs let alone win the Cup.

So with that thought, let the predictions roll.

In the Western Conference a mid-season knee or groin injury to Roberto, and discontentment by veteran players with coach John Tortorella will see Vancouver stumble to fourth in the Pacific Division, barely securing a playoff spot with a wild card spot. Without Luongo in top form, the Canucks will lose out in the first round of the playoffs to Chicago.

L.A. wins the Pacific Division regular season followed by San Jose, Anaheim, Vancouver, Edmonton, Phoenix, and Calgary. (If Edmonton picks up a decent goalie, they will finish fourth overall in the Pacific instead of Vancouver).

In the Central Division, Chicago will be followed by St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas, Nashville, Colorado, and then Winnipeg.

The Eastern Conference will see Boston finish first in the Atlantic Division followed by Detroit, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Tampa, Buffalo, and Florida.

The aptly named Metropolitan Division will see Pittsburgh finish first followed by Philadelphia, New York Rangers, and Washington (finishing within four points of each other),  New Jersey, New York Islanders, Columbus and finally Carolina.

The final six teams battling for the cup will include St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Detroit. Detroit will edge LA for the cup.

So there you are. Go ahead, pin this on your fridge and call me in June.

P.S. The Leafs are actually starting to resemble a hockey team again. With Conn Smythe, the Ballards, and Brian Burke all removed from the picture, I was starting to think about being a Leaf fan again. However, since they just signed the cowardly Phil Kessel to an eight year deal I just can’t. Kessel should have received 10 games for his dangerous slash during the exhibition season.


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