The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the 2012-13 NHL season amid great uncertainty with the surprise firing of general manager Brian Burke.
The team soldiers on under the guidance of Burke's right-hand man, Dave Nonis, but what is the state of the Leafs now that the Burke era is over?
The playoffs have eluded the Leafs since 2004... is the team at least closer to a playoff spot than it was prior to the last lockout?
The Leafs team that showed up in the first half of last season looked like the team many fans believed would eventually arrive when Burke took over.
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul formed one of the league's most dynamic offensive partnerships and - despite James Reimer's concussion problems - the team found itself soundly in the playoff picture at the Christmas break.
And then the wheels just fell off.
A competitive January was followed by a 17-game stretch that saw them win just two games and register just six of a possible 34 points. The team did little at the trade deadline and fired Ron Wilson on Mar. 2.
Toronto fans don't need to be reminded again about playoff success, but they might want to remember that the team is one of only three NHL clubs to have finished in the bottom third of the league in each of the last five seasons (the Islanders and Thrashers/Jets being the others).
So how does the team respond? Can Nonis turn the ship around after Burke's departure? Does Randy Carlyle make the Leafs a playoff team?
At the June draft, Burke raised plenty of eyebrows when he said the Leafs had Morgan Rielly tabbed as their top player available in the draft. While the skilled Moose Jaw rearguard missed substantial time in 2011-12, scouts have said he can be an absolute wizard with the puck. Forcing his way onto the team with his play (a la Jake Gardiner) might prove to be a long shot, but he's an elite young talent in an organization that has lacked blue chip prospects in recent years.
Up front, the waiting game continues for the Leafs in regards to centres Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri. Both saw limited action with the Leafs last season, but neither saw consistent time in a top-six capacity. Kadri has performed at about a point-per-game pace for the Marlies so far in 2012-13, but Colborne has run hot-and-cold, including an 11 game points drought in November and December.
The team also has high hopes for Tyler Biggs, who left Miami University (Ohio) for the OHL's Oshawa Generals this season and fulfilled checking-line duties for the gold-medal winning U.S. World Junior team.
The blue line is well stocked beyond Rielly with 2011 first-rounder Stuart Percy and Toronto Marlies regular Jesse Blacker. The Leafs were also able to grab a projected first-round talent with the 35th overall pick in Guelph's Matt Finn, who is amongst the OHL's top-10 in scoring from defencemen.
Carlyle gets a clean slate and a chance to impose his style of play on the team for an entire season.
The club clearly underwent some growing pains in Carlyle's 18 games last season, but his blend of physical play and a heavy dose of skill helped Anaheim to a Stanley Cup in 2007.
If Carlyle can get Dion Phaneuf playing like an All-Star again and cut down the amount of goals the team concedes, the Leafs might be able to once again play and succeed the way they did in first three months of last season.
To date, the team's goaltending situation has not inspired confidence.
James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have just 83 combined career NHL games. Reimer missed a lot of time last season with concussion-like symptoms and a neck injury and Scrivens' numbers last season (4-5-2, 3.13, .903) weren't all that impressive over a short stint.
Could the team's undoing this coming year its inexperience in the crease either through trade or free agency? Cue the Roberto Luongo rumours.
A look at where Maple Leafs players went during the lockout:
Carter Ashton (Toronto, AHL), Matt Frattin (Toronto, AHL), Jake Gardiner (Toronto, AHL), Mikhail Grabovski (CSKA Moscow, KHL), Carl Gunnarsson (Orebro, Swedish Second Tier), Korbinian Holzer (Toronto, AHL), Nazem Kadri (Toronto, AHL), Nikolai Kulemin (Metallurg, KHL), Joffrey Lupul (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, KHL), Clarke MacArthur (Eispiraten Crimmitschau, German Elite), Ben Scrivens (Toronto, AHL)
Bob McKenzie's Breakdown
Most of the debate and focus in Toronto will be on who'll ultimately end up as the Maple Leafs' No. 1 goalie this season.
It could be James Reimer or maybe it'll be Ben Scrivens or Roberto Luongo, but there are a number of questions beyond the net for Leaf fans.
Who'll centre the Leafs' No. 1 line with the winger pair of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. It could be Tyler Bozak, if he's not traded as part of a Luongo deal. It could be James van Riemsdyk, if head coach Randy Carlyle decides to experiment a little with the big winger who was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers. And the most important question of all is - whoever is in that No. 1 slot, is it going to be good enough?
The other big question up front is whether Lupul and Kessel can be as productive for Carlyle as they were under Ron Wilson. Carlyle is going to be more demanding on his goal scorers to play a harder, all-around game, but if Lupul and Kessel are ready, willing and able, Carlyle is a coach who relies heavily on his stars.
There's no reason to think Toronto's second line, with Mikhail Grabovski between Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, won't remain intact, but if Matt Frattin, who's played well in the AHL for the Marlies, is ready for top six duty, the Leafs might have an expendable winger.
Failing that, it's possible Frattin and van Riemsdyk could line up with veteran centre Jay McClement. Nazem Kadri is going to get a long look to see if he's ready to be an NHL regular and Tim Connolly is still available.
There should be plenty of truculence on Carlyle's fourth line. Newcomer Leo Komarov brings a lot of sandpaper and joins returnees Mike brown, Colton Orr and David Steckel as depth options.
On defence, the top four consists of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarason and Jean-Michael Liles and Jake Gardiner, but Gardiner is recovering from a concussion and if he's out for any prolonged period, it leaves a large hole. Underage first rounder Morgan Rielly is going to get a look, but veteran Mike Komisarek remains in the mix and three Marlies will challenge for time - Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer and hard rock Mark Fraser.
Paul Ranger may be the most talented defenceman on the Marlies and clearly has the physical tools to be an NHL defenceman, but he's content playing in the AHL and neither he nor the Leafs have any plans at this time to alter their AHL-only arrangement.
The Maple Leafs are the only franchise that didn't make the playoffs in the life of the last CBA and if that's going to change in this new era, the questions in goal and on the first line need to be answered with strong performances.