Since 2000, and even in years prior, the Toronto Maple Leafs have never entered into a new season with any sort of mystery about them.
Expectations were set, and the team generally lived up (or down) to them. At the start of the decade, no one doubted that the Leafs would not only make the playoffs, but would also make a serious run for the Stanley Cup.
With players like Gary Roberts, Sergei Berezin, Darcy Tucker, Alex Mogilny, and Steve Thomas all in their relative primes, as well as Captain Clutch himself, Mats Sundin, the Leafs were expected to make noise every postseason. The team could pay anyone as much as was needed, and with a group of veterans leading the way, they were always one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Then came the lockout in 2004, which was the "TSN Turning Point," if you will, for the franchise as a whole.
After that year, the Leafs were not only expected to miss the playoffs, but to have a better chance at snagging the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.
Post-lockout, the best way to describe the Leafs is "punch line". And that has nothing to do with the toughness of the team's grinders.
There were no real surprises in any of the seasons since 2000; Leaf Nation generally got exactly what was expected of their team, no matter how disappointing. You knew what was coming.
But things are different this year in Toronto.
For the first time in a long time, the general consensus is that no one really knows where this team will be sitting at season's end. Sure, no one expects them to come anywhere close to the Stanley Cup, but the outlook is not as bleak as in seasons past.
We've all just sort of agreed to take a "wait and see" approach with this club.
We are, we are the youth of the nation. Leaf Nation, that is.
The days of trading away any and all promising draft picks for veteran players are long gone, the days where Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov were the team's most promising young players.
Now the club drafts players they actually have intentions of keeping, rather than picking incredibly skilled players and simply trading them away for the likes of Andrew Raycroft (see Rask, Tuukka) or Owen Nolan (see Boyes, Brad).
Because of this, the Leafs have stockpiled a pretty impressive group of prospects just itching to crack the roster this season, giving hope for both the present-day team and the team of the future. At all positions.
The Leafs have never really had this much talent as far as prospects go. Sure, they've had plenty of skilled players come up from the minors in the past—okay, not plenty—but never all at once. Not quite like this season.
A slew of rookies are not expected to don the blue-and-white this season because many players are fighting for few spots on the roster at this point. Whether they play this season or three years down the road, though, some competition is finally brewing from below.
(Be honest—this was probably the first year you had any interest in the rookie tournament.)
In years past, if a player struggled for long periods of time, the worst thing he got was scattered boos on home ice and annoying questions from the media, simply because no one else was qualified to steal your position.
But on these Maple Leafs, that's far from the case.
If a player struggles this season, he could get a first-hand look at the quality service offered in the ACC's private boxes while watching someone else play his first NHL game.
Thus is the nature of the beast this season; it will be interesting to see which players, if any, step in and make a name for themselves.
Goaltending will also be interesting this season, because the Leafs have two NHL-capable goalies with a shot to win the starting job. J.S. Giguère has been handed the job for now, but it's clear that the move was made only to encourage backup Jonas Gustavsson to push Giguère.
Fans can take comfort in looking back in the net without cringing every time Vesa Toskala took a blind stab with his glove at nothing but air. Toskala's save attempts were often mistaken by fans as encouragement to begin the ever-popular wave. He will not be missed, as this year's goaltending should give the Leafs a chance to win the game every single night. Finally.
The only question that remains is whether the Leafs can keep both goalies happy all season, something many other clubs struggle with consistently.
The biggest draw this season might just be the crowded phone booth that is the Maple Leafs defensive core. Including rookies Keith Aulie, Jesse Blacker, and Korbinian Holzer, the Leafs could ice any combination of 13 NHL-ready defensemen and be confident in their talent.
Two years ago the club didn't have 13 players on the entire roster they had confidence in.
Yes, there will certainly be a logjam of blue-liners this season, and because of that the team should be much more physical and tougher to play against. No one is entirely sure how they'll all gel together, though, so for now the defense can simply be described as "good on paper."
Plus, who can forget about the Tomas Kaberle saga that is bound to continue late into the season, keeping the defense in the news one way or another at all times? Executives for Dr. Phil have no doubt contacted Kaberle, his father, and Ron Wilson.
The team announced a new captain, Dion Phaneuf, for the first time since 1996, when Mats Sundin stepped in to replace Doug Gilmour, officially ending the "No More Mats" hangover and providing the next generation a new leader at the helm.
But just like everything else this season, we're not exactly sure how it's going to work out just yet.
With less than a month until the regular season kicks off, and just days from the opening game of the preseason, the Leafs have a quiet confidence about them that we haven't seen for quite some time in these parts.
This season, the Leafs could either take a giant step toward becoming a solid playoff contender or serve up one of the most disappointing seasons we've had in a while—and that's saying something.
Or, it could be a middling season with a whole lot of somewhere-in-the-middle happening.
We really don't know what's going to happen in Leaf Land in the coming year, and it's that mystery that makes this season very interesting.
Very interesting indeed.