Top 10 Early Season Surprises of 1994

Hockey Poolies and armchair GMsÖ are you sweating your picks yet? Are you looking at dumping Damphousse, Kurri, or LeClair from your fantasy team because of their slow starts ? Are your hometown Nordiques, Flyers or Kings performing so underwhelmingly, youíre calling for the coach to be fired?  

Ahhh, the microcosm known as the beginning of the season, where all mega fans panic, where the radio call in lines are on fire with wild trade speculation, and where season opening trends mean absolutely nothingÖ. Well usually.   For every major surprise, the likelihood that the law of averages will kick in and fix all that is wrong in the world is highly likely.  BUT, (and this is an important BUT), one or two of the season opener surprises somehow sticks for the full year.  Question is, which?  Only the brightest minds can identify the right ones at this stage as the data is still murky and GMs/coaches adjust their rosters or their methods or even make a trade or two.

So, hereís our top 10 of the biggest surprises so far in 1994 (and our guesses as to whether this will be a full season impact or if this is just a momentary blip in the 1994 NFHL season) :

10. Patrik Elias falls to 3rd in entry draft

This one is in the books forever and not likely to really have an impact on the current seasonís outcome so we will get it out of the way right off the bat.  Thereís no doubt the 1994 draft did not really have a clear cut #1 favorite like in past years, so itís not really the biggest shocker. Nonetheless, very few teams, if any, had Elias falling 3rd in the draft. Most teams had Elias pegged 1st or 2nd.  Going 3rd might have an impact on the young Czech who will likely carry a chip on his shoulder. The fans in Chicago however are not complaining as they got lucky twice. First by winning one of the lotteries bumping them up from 4th overall to 3rd, and then watching Elias fall in the draft, right into their laps. Prediction: One of Calgary or Toronto (or both!) will look back on this draft one day and regret passing on Elias.

9. Surprise on top of the Wales -  Devils are tied for 1st

With all the relocations and expansion, we knew the Wales Conference would give some funky results in the standings but despite that, a few teams were going to be the obvious front runners for the top spot.  The fact that the Devils are first is somewhat of a surprise.  This is not a knock on New Jersey as we certainly saw them make a splash last season to become a true contender. This is more a knock on Hartford and Boston who were expected to take a more prominent position in the standings. The Whalers have been absolutely perfect at home with a 8-0 record.  Prediction: Hartford will indeed take over the top spot in the Wales. New Jersey and Boston will fight for the 2nd spot in the Wales. 

8. Whalers trade Paul Coffey

Another ďfait-accompliĒ that surprised us when it happened. The Whalers, as mentioned, one of the favourites to win the Wales Conference, traded their superstar defensemen Paul Coffey.  Coffey just completed back-to-back 60+ point seasons. The return wasnít terrible but certainly somewhat underwhelming when you think the best player in the deal was on the way out rather than on the way in.  Randy Burridge, JJ Daigneault, Paul DiPietro, John Slaney was the haul for Hartford.  Coffey has 9 points in 11 games for Vancouver on pace for another 60+ point season.  Burridge has 6 points in 10 games, Daigneault 4 points in 9 games, Slaney and DiPietro have played all but 1 game in the minors.  Prediction: Coffey, the best player in the deal, has another 60+ points season in 1994. Burridge and Daigneault are unable to fill the void and never get to a 50-point season in their careers although they come close. Whalers make another deal in season to fill the void left by Coffey.

7. Relocated Columbus team and its rookie GM are 1st overall in the league.

Not a complete surprise when one realizes that rookie GM Blair inherited one of last yearís strongest teams, the former Wales Conference champs Maple Leafs.  And despite the fact that GM Blair is benefiting from the hard work of former GM Brandon Clark, he is not resting on his laurels either by making 4 deals in the preseason and early in the season.  Reinforcing the backup position in nets was key and will help ensure Columbus remains amongst the top teams. Prediction: Both the Jets and Rockies, not to mention the Red Wings are going to be doing whatever it takes to bring the Jackets down from their franchise record breaking start.  Columbus will remain a threat deep into the season but with so much competition and seasoned GMs like Corcoran and Smith knowing their way around the league, the rookie GM will find it tough to keep the #1 spot.

6. Wales Conference is wide open with new teams in a playoff position

As mentioned above, if thereís ever been a season with a wide open Wales Conference, this would be it.  Why is it so wide open? For starters, last yearís winners the Toronto Maple Leafs have relocated to Columbus. Thatís one huge franchise out of the way. Secondly, the Canadiens, Penguins, Leafs are all former rebuilding teams and not quite ready for the big show. Then you add the Lightning expansion team, and the newly rebuilding Isles and Sabres to the mix, and letís not forget the lowly Rangers. Thatís 7 teams that have either recently tanked or are in the process of tanking. With only 6 teams not named just now out of 13, that means two ďweakĒ teams automatically make the playoffs. Prediction: The Canadiens and Penguins make their long-awaited arrival into the playoffs.  

5. Buffalo Sabres going for broke

We just mentioned how the Wales is full of rebuilding teams.  One team we did not expect to be there so soon was the Buffalo Sabres.  Out of nowhere, with no warning or fanfare, the Sabres completely reset their roster. They did a good job of it, however, and were able to add great prospects such as Derian Hatcher, Darren Van Impe, Patrick Traverse, Sami Kapanen, Darcy Tucker, Viktor Kozlov, Todd Marchant, Chris Gratton, Vinny Prospal, Markus Naslund, and a ton of draft picks. The Sabres went full on rebuild and are likely going to be back on the playoff map in no time. Prediction: The Sabres will most definitely miss these yearís playoffs. We donít have a crystal ball, but we think their rebuild will be quicker and more successful than that of the Isles, Blues and Ducks.

4. Flyers canít get their act together

Ok, so weíve mentioned this at least 4 times already. The Wales Conference is open, easy, and ready to be dominated (keep your mind out of the gutter!).  So which team thatís been hard at work for years now is finally ready to dominate in an open playing field? Did you say the Flyers? Well, theoretically, thatís what we all thought would happen but as the title of this paragraph states, the Flyers just canít get their act together.  After 11 games, they are 4-6-1, which is outside the playoff picture.  GM Hoggett has not wasted time, however, and has made some blockbuster deals trying to shake up his team. Itís not so much the fact that they are 9th in the Wales that is surprising. Whatís surprising is who is ahead of them.  Strength of schedule does have an impact here though.  The Flyers have faced some tough competition in their first 11 games, namely going against the Devils, Oilers, Jackets, Bruins, Panthers and Rockies.  Sure, some of those games should have been ties or wins but for the most part the Flyers havenít had it easy.  Prediction: The law of averages shall even all things out. The Flyers are easily going to finish in the top 6 of the Wales.

3. 34- year-old Anderson leads the league in points

Again, this is not a huge surprise per se, as Anderson has been here before, many times.  Anderson finished 1st overall last year, was 4th the prior season in 1992, and finished 1st again in 1991.  No, whatís surprising is that he can still do it despite his 34 years of age. And he can do it better than some superstar young players such as Modano, Muller and Lemieux. Prediction: Anderson wins another Art Ross trophy and manages to fend off the competition by the end of the season.

2. The Rookies look all right

Rookie Yashin is not only dominating the Calder race, heís also amongst the top 30-point leaders in the league. Many will argue this is nothing we havenít seen before. However, more surprisingly after 11 games heís 2nd in the league in goals with 2 games played less than Anderson. Heís on pace for a 72-goal season. 50 is certainly not out of reach.  In nets, rookie Tommy Salo is 5th in the league in save percentage and will give Edmonton a powerful 1-2 punch for years to come. Prediction: Yashin scores 50 in his rookie season and wins the Calder. Salo wonít stay top 5 in save percentage but will nonetheless be runner up in Calder voting.

1. Blues announce rebuild

After a poor start to the season, and just a day after trading its 1996 1st round pick, the St. Louis Blues reverse course and announce they are adding their name to the long list of teams that are rebuilding.  They pulled the trigger on 3 deals moving their starting netminder Richter out of town and acquiring prospect goalie Turco and San Joseís 1st round pick in 96 amongst some of his moves to start the rebuild.  However, the next few days seem to indicate the Blues are re-focusing on making the playoffs as of this year. The Blues traded two first round picks including their own 1st overall in 1997. For a team thatís messaging a rebuild, the teamís actions seem to indicate the opposite.  Only time will tell which direction management takes on its trade policy. Prediction: Blues fall short of making the playoffs but get out of the basement with the Rangers, Flames, Hawks and Sabres all finishing below them.

 There you have it, armchair GMs! These are our predictions. Can you guess better? Send us your thoughts, your own predictions, or any ideas for another feature article by mailing us a letter at the following address:  C/O Forecaster, PO BOX 11151, Camden NJ. 08030, USA.

-The Sports Forecaster