The Maple Leafs celebrate their centennial season this year - and Toronto fans have an abundance of things to cheer for, on and off the ice, in the weeks and months ahead.
The Leafs' talented core of youngsters and veterans remains intact for this season, and head coach Mike Babcock will look to those players - including Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner - to lead the way. Both van Riemsdyk and Bozak missed significant time to injuries in the 2015-16 campaign, and having them in the lineup every night will help Toronto's competitiveness a great deal.
The returning Leafs will skate alongside a number of new teammates who've come aboard either via the draft, free agency or trades. Most notable among them is dynamic young centre Auston Matthews, whom the team chose with the first-overall selection of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. The 19-year-old Matthews has impressed at both the organization's development camp and as a member of Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and the Arizona native will be an integral component of Toronto's blueprint for success for years to come.
Similarly, longtime Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen - acquired this summer in a trade Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello made with Anaheim - is expected to play a significant role in Toronto's successes this year and beyond. After the Buds completed the trade for his services, Lamoriello signed the 26-year-old Denmark native to a five-year contract - and signed a number of free agent players to new deals.
Buds fans will recognize one of those players - veteran defenceman Roman Polak, who agreed to a one-year contract - from his stint with Toronto last season, but the others are new to the franchise: up front, former Islanders staple Matt Martin was signed to a four-year pact to provide grit and tenaciousness among the bottom six group of forwards; on the blueline, 24-year-old Russian and former Kontinental Leaguer Nikita Zaitsev inked a one-year deal; and former Sabres, Stars and Kings netminder Jhonas Enroth signed a one-year contract to serve as Andersen's backup.
The newcomers will join those who weren't on the Leafs' roster to start the 2015-16 season - including trade acquisitions Milan Michalek and Connor Carrick, as well as skilled youngsters William Nylander, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman, all of whom availed themselves well in short stints with the team (in addition to the central roles they played for the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies) - in a battle for ice time and opportunities. As well, more than a few people will be paying close attention to Ontario League superstar forward Mitch Marner.
All-in-all, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has a deeper, faster group of players with which to work, and although their rivals in the Atlantic Division have made moves in the hope of improvement, Toronto management - led by team president Brendan Shanahan, and including assistant GMs Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas - is confident the Buds are making progress toward their ultimate goal.
And while there will be more thrills on the ice at Air Canada Centre this year, the franchise is going to exceptional lengths to honour the first hundred years of its existence. That celebration began at the draft in Buffalo with the unveiling of the Leafs' newest uniforms - including a redesigned logo that is both a tribute to the team's storied past and a new vision for a new era - and it will kick into high gear when the '16-17 season begins with a number of special events.
In October, Leafs legends Dave Keon, Tim Horton and Turk Broda will be immortalized in bronze when life-sized statues of their likeness will be added to the burgeoning Legends Row area outside Air Canada Centre; their additions will bring to 10 the number of team icons who've received the honour. In another nod to the franchise's incredible history, a panel will decide and reveal their choices of the greatest 100 players ever to wear the Blue and White, and each of those players will be recognized during the season.
Arguably the most noteworthy Leafs event this year will be the inaugural NHL Centennial Classic - a regular-season game between Toronto and Original Six rival Detroit Red Wings that will take place on New Year's Day at a most unusual location: BMO Field, home to Major League Soccer's Toronto Football Club and the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. The Leafs last played in an outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2014 when they took on the Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.,and beat Detroit 3-2 in a shootout - but this will be their first time hosting an open-air game and it promises to be the hottest ticket around. There will also be an alumni game at BMO Field featuring an array of familiar faces and names from the past, as well as opportunities for the public to skate at the venue.
The Leafs will again tip their hat to the past on March 18, 2017 when they don the uniforms of the Toronto St. Pats - the name of the franchise from 1919-1927 before team legend Conn Smythe renamed them the Maple Leafs - for a home game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Leafs' regular season begins in Ottawa Oct. 12 when they square off against the Senators, and their home schedule starts three nights later when the Boston Bruins visit Toronto. But everyone from team brass to the players themselves intend on making each game a rewarding experience for Leafs fans. The way they see it, good things are happening, and better days are coming.
That spirit - and the off-ice festivities surrounding a very big birthday party - promise to make this year a particularly special one for Leafs Nation.