Every year, the season opener is a big deal in Toronto. It marks the beginning of a season where there's always a chance that the Stanley Cup drought will stop, and we can once again witness a parade through downtown Toronto.
There's something different about this upcoming season opener though.
It's not that there will be a new man behind the bench this season, or that the Leafs could be missing Mats Sundin for the first time since 1994-95, or that Luke Schenn could be the first Maple Leafs first-round pick to make an impact the following season since who knows when—but what's happening during that season opener that's a little different.
For the first time since the opening game of the 1998-99 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs' first game will be against the defending Stanley Cup Chamions .Ironically enough, it's against the same team—the Detroit Red Wings.
For the first time since 1960-61 though, the Leafs open the season in the defending Cup Champions' home building (the Montreal Canadiens were the champs in 1960).
To some, this may not be ideal. But if you're a team that's going to be mired in a fairly lengthy rebuilding phase, this is one of the best challenges you can hope for.
As some of the players take to the ice for their first full season in the NHL, they'll find themselves centrepieces in one of the oldest rivalries in hockey. They'll be exposed to a playoff-like atmosphere, against one of the most battle-tested teams of recent memory.
They'll be forced to fight their way through a tough lineup, and they'll have to learn early on how to earn their scoring chances.
The Baby Buds will see how well they match up against the defending Stanley Cup champions. They'll see how hard the defending champs work, their finesse, their team work, their trust in their teammates, and how far they have to go to be that good.
They can look at Marian Hossa to know what kind of impact the opportunity of a winning system and a winning atmosphere can have on any player—and how one silver chalice can make you one of the most attractive franchises to play for in the NHL.
They will look no further than Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as examples of players who can play either end of the ice responsibly, and still have offensive success. They can see two players who were not above the advice that was being offered to them by veterans on the team, and how that advice helped mould their careers.
They can experience all the bumps and bruises being dolled out by Tomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper—knowing that each one of these guys had to take the same kind of abuse to get to where they are today.
They can watch as an entire team—not just small groups or individual players—buy into the coaches' system and make that system into a winner.
They'll experience firsthand just how much work it takes to be the champs.
If they win, it will come at a price. Despite the added muscle of Ryan Hollweg and Jamal Mayers, the Baby Buds will be pushed around by the defending champs. If they come out on top they'll feel it, and know they earned this one.
A win could propel an entire season of surprise, intrigue, and mystery. A win could also provide the Buds with a one-month high before sending them crashing back to reality for the rest of the season.
A loss could teach them how to deal with heartbreak, how to throw it all out there and come up short, and what it feels like to look up at a behemoth and know that one day you could knock them down a peg. It would let them know that step-by-step, faceoff-by-faceoff, you can one day compete with the big dog on the block.
Whether they win or lose, the Baby Buds will have come to grips with just a few of the lessons they'll be forced into over the course of the season—and all for the better. Any of those outcomes could happen, and they'll all have to be dealt with over the players' careers more than once.
Either way, the new-look Toronto Maple Leafs will have faced one of their biggest challenges in the first game of the season. Playing against the defending champions will not only show them a glimpse of what they hope to achieve, but it will help us as fans gauge where they are as a team, and how well they hold their own, even if it is early in the season.
Besides, the year after playing the defending champion Montreal Canadiens to open the season, the Maple Leafs won the cup (1961-62). If that's not optimism, then I don't know what is.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and an NHL Community Leader. If you need to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also look at his past works in his archives.