And this time, expectations are as low as they've been in a long time.
That's saying something for the Toronto Maple Leafs, given their history. But the reality is few expect this team to contend for a playoff spot – and you won't hear that talked about much as training camp gets underway in earnest Friday through Sunday in Halifax.
This season is about the rebuild, making baby steps and beginning to point the organization in the right direction after a decade-long tailspin.
That doesn't mean there aren't some intriguing storylines to follow in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 7 home opener against Montreal. There's a lot going on with this roster, and a lot of unanswered questions to sort through.
Here are the biggest of those:
1. Mike Babcock
All eyes will be on the new coach – and with good reason. How much of a difference he can make, by implementing a much more structured defensive system, will be one of the key questions of the Leafs season.
Can a very good coach elevate a roster with this many holes in it to greater heights? Can he get them to play hard, night after night, even if there are a lot of losses and growing pains? And how does a strong personality like Babcock handle the Toronto media spotlight, which can be a relentless experience for anyone?
2. The young guns: Nylander, Marner and Kapanen
The Leafs top three prospects are all highly unlikely to make the team out of camp. William Nylander (taken eighth overall in 2014) and Kasperi Kapanen (acquired from Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel trade) are destined to be top scorers in the AHL with a dangerous Marlies team. Mitch Marner, drafted fourth overall in June, is almost certainly headed back to junior with the London Knights, to terrorize more teenage goalies.
But all three will get into several exhibition games, and Babcock will use that experience as teachable minutes in terms of what the Leafs are looking for down the line. Without Kessel, one of the Leafs biggest needs two or three years down the road will be high-end offensive talent – the kind that's very difficult to get via free agency or trade – and these three players are their biggest hope they currently have internally.
3. Do the PTOs do enough to get signed?
The Leafs have a remarkable 69 players at training camp – likely the most leaguewide – after Thursday's five-for-one deal with the Islanders. That includes four veteran NHLers on professional tryouts: Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, Devin Setoguchi and former Leaf top sixer Mark Fraser.
With so many players and only a limited number of roster spots, even at the AHL level, in the organization, all four can't possibly stick. But they give the Leafs good insurance in case of injuries during camp, and if trade talks pick up on someone like Tyler Bozak or Joffrey Lupul, they'll be capable replacements for a fraction of the salary.
They're free assets, to be signed (and later dealt) if needed.
Expect Boyes – a former Leafs pick – to have the greatest chance of sticking around given Toronto's openings on the right wing, followed by Setoguchi (with a two-way deal), Glencross and Fraser. Minutes seem especially limited on the back end, so Fraser's invite looks more like a favour from GM Lou Lamoriello – who had him in New Jersey – than anything.
4. Who gets Phil Kessel's RW slot?
Most lineup projections you'll see online have Joffrey Lupul shifting back to right wing on the top line, but the fact is Lupul strongly believes he's a more effective player on his off wing and it's likely the organization agrees.
If Lupul stays on the left side, that leaves four possible candidates, after Toronto acquired Michael Grabner from the Islanders: Grabner, P-A Parenteau, Richard Panik and Boyes.
There are benefits to each getting that kind of plum assignment on the opposite wing from James van Riemsdyk. In Parenteau's case, he's just stopping through on a cheap, one-year deal and will almost definitely be dealt for a draft pick or prospect later in the season.
The bigger his role, the more he likely produces, the more he fetches in a potential deal.
You can make a similar argument for both Grabner and Boyes, with the added benefit that Boyes's contract will likely be even smaller, should he even earn one with the Leafs in camp.
Panik, meanwhile, is a young player still finding his way, and the Leafs push to develop youth could include the former Lightning prospect in more prominent minutes than his fringe role a year ago.
(Yes, Nylander is a fifth option but every indication is the organization wants him to continue to learn in the AHL, at least to start the year.)
5. Who plays with Phaneuf?
There are a lot of eyes on the captain entering camp. Now 30 and with a behemoth contract that makes him one of the highest paid defencemen in the NHL, Dion Phaneuf is going to be a focal point primarily because his future is so up in the air.
Babcock loves his potential, and has been a key advocate for him to stay, but is that a long-term initiative given the overall youth movement and his onerous cap hit? Will Babcock use Phaneuf in a different, more offensive role, the way he was deployed in Calgary? Has he lost a step – and will he lose more as he ages?
Could he have trade value later in the year if, in fact, he begins to produce again?
6. Who's the odd-man out on the blueline?
As mentioned, there are a ton of bodies on the Leafs defence after they brought in Matt Hunwick, Martin Marincin and T.J. Brennan for auditions in the off-season.
Assuming they want all three in the NHL this year, that pushes someone like veteran Stephane Robidas – coming off yet another off-season surgery as one of the oldest players in the league at 38 – into a No. 7 or 8 role, despite the fact (a) he has two years remaining on his deal and (b) he'll be looked to as a leader in the dressing room.
And what if a younger defenceman like Scott Harrington or Stuart Percy et al challenges for a roster spot? What if they feel Fraser is a good fit with the Marlies, potentially as captain? A trade – or waivers – could be a key factor here.
7. Will Kadri be the top line centre, including on the power play?
Without Kessel, Bozak's role suddenly shifts. Previously, he was (controversially) viewed as the best complement to his pal and roommate, but the line consistently struggled defensively while inconsistently producing a lot of points.
Nazem Kadri is coming off a disappointing year plagued by off-ice issues – including a suspension for a no-show to practice – and received only a one-year deal that sets this season up as a prove-yourself moment for the soon-to-be 25 year old.
Kadri is a more offensively gifted player than Bozak but has never been given top line ice time with the Leafs best offensive players or a prolonged chance on the top power play unit. That should change under Babcock, if the team is serious about going in this new, younger direction.
8. Does Babcock favour veterans or youth?
This fits with the Kadri question, but it applies to Panik and a lot of others as well. Will Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner get minutes over, say, Roman Polak and the other veterans on the back end? Will Peter Holland be guaranteed at least a top three centre role, even with Parenteau, Grabner and potentially Boyes and Glencross fighting for minutes? Will Shawn Matthias be pushed up the lineup into a scoring line role given he's younger than a lot of the competition?
This sort of decision making was a problem under the previous coaching staff – which too often favoured veterans – but things have certainly changed in the front office. With this season (and perhaps the next several) in service to the future, will youth really get served?
9. How does the battle in the crease shape up?
There's little drama in goal at the NHL level: Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer will be the Leafs netminders, barring a trade. And one assumes Bernier is likely to get the bulk of the starts, given recent history and his numbers.
But is there an opening for Reimer to impress and get back to more of a tandem position instead of a 55-27 split?
And what happens with the organization's two young goaltenders – Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks – who battled for crease time with the Marlies last season with the now-departed Chris Gibson? They're only 21 and 22 years old and have shown flashes in the AHL; does one emerge as a likely candidate to replace Reimer, whose contract has one year remaining and who could be trade fodder in midseason?
10. Who can't make the Marlies?
Speaking of the Leafs AHL affiliate, they're going to have some difficult decisions of their own. The Leafs have acquired a few young pros with potential like Nikita Soshnikov and Brendan Leipsic (in the Cody Franson trade) and, added to their draft picks, that's created a cluttered system.
The Grabner deal helped. Toronto cleared out five contracts – Gibson, defencemen Tom Nilsson and Matt Finn, forwards Taylor Beck and Carter Verhaeghe – which provides significant breathing room under the NHL's 50-contract limit. That will allow the Leafs to add players via trade or waivers early on, potentially taking advantage of cap-strapped teams dumping useful players. And that's probably more important than hanging onto a handful of "tweener" prospects that were unlikely to make an NHL impact.
Even with that newfound space, however, there are going to be battles for spots, and some surprising names could be sent to Orlando in the ECHL to get more ice time.
That's not necessarily a criticism of their talent level either: It's part of a new organizational focus that wants to try and shift players in and out of the lower minor league as a way of creating battles to make even the AHL team.