NASHVILLE -- A fire sale like the one that gutted the Nashville Predators last summer is supposed to signal the beginning of a painful rebuilding effort that can take years to complete, if it ever gets completed at all.
That's what many in the hockey world expected to see in Tennessee this year, after watching the Predators go from a star-studded Stanley Cup contender to a stripped-down shadow of their former self.
EXIT STAGE LEFT
Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Gone. Peter Forsberg. Gone. Paul Kariya and Tomas Vokoun. Gone.
The cover on this year's Nashville media guide could have been a clunker, robbed of all its best parts, sitting on blocks in the backyard.
"Over the summer a few of us in here were pretty disappointed with it, but that's the business of the game," said Nashville captain and former Oiler Jason Arnott. "But we came to camp, signed some really good character guys and everybody's just chipped in this year. We've really won a lot of games on character and heart and hard work. That's been the base all year."
It's serving them remarkably well. Instead of languishing at the bottom of the Western Conference, they're right in the thick of the playoff chase. And getting better. Since Jan. 1 they've posted the best record in the NHL.
They also have the second best home record in the league. And they're doing all of it without anyone in the top 29 in scoring.
"We don't have any superstars," said Arnott.
"We just have a lot of hard workers."
Like Jed Ortmeyer, Radek Bonk, Martin Gelinas and Greg deVries.
"It takes a little while to gel skill-wise and for guys to find their identity, but I think right now our team has really started to work well together," said goalie Dan Ellis. "We knew we had a good group in here. This team has built a bit of a tradition on winning.
"Whether you lose key guys or not, when you have a winning expectation you do whatever you can to find ways to succeed. That's what this team has done. We've won with resiliency and character a little bit more than we've done with skill in years past."
TEAM HOLLOWED OUT
Nobody liked it that owner Craig Leipold, who'd been losing money on the Preds for years, hollowed out the team in anticipation of a sale. Or that Nashville's payroll this year ($35 million) is just barely above the NHL's salary cap floor (34.7 million).
But nobody quit.
"That's what's been great about our team this year," said Jordin Tootoo. "Nobody hung their heads. Guys stepped up."
It's an all-for-one mentality. They're a scrappy team that sticks together, knowing they won't win anything unless they do it as a pack.
"That can take you a long way," said Tootoo. "We care about each other in here, we play for each other."