They're not big, but they are quick, efficient with their scoring touch, strong on the draw, vibrant on the back line, and they back it all up with Tomas Vokoun in net. Little wonder that the Nashville Predators entered the weekend as the only club in the Original 30 yet to record a loss (8-0-1) in regulation.
''Everything said about our team," mused general manager David Poile, ''without Tomas Vokoun, none of it happens."
Welcome to the new NHL, same as the old NHL. No matter how the game retools itself, be it with a shakeout of the rulebook or a splash of fancy French perfume along every dasher, a team's success always traces back to the guy fronting the cage.
Vokoun, somewhat lost in the overall anonymity of the Predators since their inception in the fall of 1998, was a Canadiens throwaway draft pick in 1994 (No. 226) and made his way to Tennessee via the expansion draft only three-plus months prior to the franchise's opening faceoff.
The Czech standout became an All-Star in '03-04, his first full season without regular partner Mike Dunham. Ever since, he has turned into one of the game's most consistent workhorses, averaging 70 games in the two seasons leading up to the lockout. Entering last night, he was already 7-0 with a tidy 2.20 goals-against mark and a .930 save percentage.
''Unless he plays the way he does every day for us," added Poile, ''we're not the same team."
Yet the Predators are a much different, more offensively inclined squad in 2005-06, and by Poile's design. The key to the makeover came up front, where Poile surprised everyone, including himself, by landing unrestricted free agent Paul Kariya over the summer.
''A couple of major factors came into play with Paul," noted Poile, whose club made the playoffs for the first time in 2003-04. ''There were some out there who didn't believe Nashville belonged in the league. We're in a nontraditional hockey market and we'd never had the money to spend for free agency.
''So it was important to show the league and people around the country we're serious here about competing in a league where the playing field has evened out financially. But primarily it was a message to our fans."
It took $9 million over two years to hire Kariya, who had a similar offer in at least one other city but has said repeatedly that it was Poile's selling job and his own sense of the franchise's promise that led him to Nashville. Poile then re-signed top right winger Steve Sullivan to a four-year deal worth a reported $12.8 million. Entering last night, Sullivan led Predators scorers with 12 points, followed by Kariya with 10.
Another key acquisition, for much shorter money, was free agent Yanic Perreault, the longtime faceoff specialist. Perreault, 34, spent his most recent three seasons with Montreal, where he won rougly 63 percent of some 3,500 draws. Without a job in the salary-capped NHL, Perreault accepted Poile's training camp invite and won a job.
As of last night, Perreault was averaging about 14 minutes of ice time, and was enjoying his metronomic success at the faceoff dot, winning 60.4 percent of his 111 draws. Quite an impact for a guy who cost only $525,000 on a two-way deal (worth only $75,000 if he were shipped to the minors).
''Like every team in the league, we had a load of questions coming into the season," said Poile. ''From a business standpoint, we wondered if fans would come back. We wondered who we could acquire to help us. Once you get them, you have no idea how they'll play after the year off. It's a team game and you never know what the chemistry is going to be."
Behind the blue line, where many clubs have watched their defensemen struggle in the new game, the Predators have seen two of their kids, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis, emerge as steady contributors and potential leaders. Both were first-round picks, Hamhuis No. 12 in '01 and Suter (nephew of ex-NHLer Gary Suter) No. 7 in '03.
Suter, a rookie, opened the season contributing about 13:30 per night, and coach Barry Trotz already has bumped his workload up by about 30 percent. Hamhuis, a second-team All-Star in the AHL last year, spent the full season with Nashville prior to the lockout. Trotz is rolling him out 25 minutes most nights.
''He's a guy who's gone sort of the under the radar the last year or two," said Poile. ''He and Suter have both been impressive."
And the Predators have managed to make a little noise of their own in Music City. Attendance for their first five home games -- all victories -- averaged 14,306, about a 15 percent increase over the same period in 2003-04, according to club figures.
''It's encouraging; we have a fan base here that supports us," said Poile, who learned the struggles of developing an NHL following during his many years (1982-97) in charge of the Capitals. ''But that said, we need to boost our season-ticket base, and we very much need to increase our corporate support. The fans are here, but like every team, we need the corporate community to buy into what we're doing."
Not much of a haul for Neely
Cam Neely, the Bruins' newly commissioned team ambassador (The Cammissioner?), will leave town Saturday for Toronto, where he will be formally inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame Nov. 7.
''Hall of Fame -- still sounds a little strange to me," said Neely. ''Someone said to me the other day, 'So, you're a Hall of Fame hockey player?' And honestly, I didn't know exactly how to respond to that.
''I've got to work on that, I guess. I was kind of like, 'Uh . . . yeah.' You want to be able to say it without sounding like, 'Well, yeah, of course.' "
The 40-year-old Neely, who a couple of weeks ago visited the Hall upon the museum's request, handed over a few treasures for permanent display. The mementos included his black Bruins (away) helmet, the puck he popped in to establish the team record for career playoff goals (he finished with 55), a black Bruins sweater from his final season (1995-96), stick and skates, and the Memorial Cup ring he won with the 1982-83 Portland Winter Hawks.
''I really didn't have a lot to give them, because I never really collected a lot of things," said Neely. ''The Memorial Cup ring, heck, I'd never even worn it -- it was still in its original box. Nice ring, and everything, but I'm just not a jewelry guy.
''Just an indication of my mind-set, I guess. It was never about, 'Wow, OK, I've got this now, let's look at it.' It was always, 'OK, what can I do tomorrow?' "
Girard may have skated his last shift
It increasingly appears that Jonathan Girard's valiant comeback attempt may be finished.
Girard, who broke his neck and shattered his pelvis in a near-fatal July 2003 auto accident in Quebec, returned home north of Montreal last week after opening the season with the Providence Bruins. According to Boston general manager Mike O'Connell, Girard went back, in part, for further medical advice and to ponder his future.
Assigned to the Baby B's on Sept. 29 following a lackluster training camp with Boston, Girard played in only one game with Providence. According to a number of published reports, Girard, if he is pondering retirement, must consider insurance ramifications. The reports say he could forfeit an insurance payout of some $3 million once he played in 20 professional games -- be they in the NHL or any other league.
''I'm sure that's part of the decision," said O'Connell, always a booster of the fast-skating defenseman. ''Let's put it this way: I know it's an issue for him, but I don't know the specifics of the insurance, the money, all that."
Bob Sauve, the former NHL goalie and Girard's longtime agent, did not return a phone call from the Globe seeking comment. Last week, Sauve told the Providence Journal, ''This is a life decision. What's good for Jonathan, as a human being, is first."
Girard, 25, spent months in a Quebec hospital and rehab center, nearly dying early on because of an infection related to his blood being contaminated in the horrific crash. But he was back skating within a year and remained hopeful that he could relaunch his promising NHL career this fall.
''Only way to go," said Neely. ''And I've got just the two kids in mind to shovel it."
Who to turn to for installation? Neely already has the guy in mind: ex-NHLer Dave Gagner, co-owner of Custom Ice Inc., the same outfit that last year designed and installed a 40-by-40-foot sheet for the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square.
The Ontario-based company recently added offices in Minneapolis, where the 40-year-old Gagner is hoping to introduce a hockey-crazed population to his product line. According to Gagner, his company installed a 50-by-120-foot sheet at comedian Denis Leary's home in Connecticut and also constructed and maintained the sheet for ''Ice Princess," the Disney movie shot just north of Toronto.
''That was a lot of fun, and challenging, too, because the shooting extended into May," said Gagner, once a first-round pick of the Rangers. ''It was spring already, and they had the fake snow going, and they had to put people up in trees to pull the buds off so it would still look like winter."
Neely, looking out of his downtown office late last week, spotted the wide-open space not far from the New England Aquarium where the Central Artery has been torn down. What an ideal spot for an outdoor rink, he said.
''Sure would welcome that opportunity," said Gagner. For more information on Gagner's company, visit customicerinks.com.
Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.