A year ago, all eyes were on the Calgary Hitmen. With the NHL lockout just beginning its ugly saga, the Hitmen became the biggest game in town.
And the expectations couldn't have been higher.
With a roster loaded with first-round NHL picks, The Hockey News pegged the Hitmen as the top team in the WHL -- and third best in the country.
The '04-05 club never lived up to those lofty expectations, although it did advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in four years.
How times have changed.
The Hitmen, having lost five of their top six scorers from last season, won't be expected to light the league on fire in '05-06.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing, says GM/head coach Kelly Kisio.
"With the Flames coming back, the focus isn't on us like it was last year," Kisio says. "The kids can just go out and play and not be saddled with that No. 1 or No. 3 (in the country) ranking.
"They'll be able to play and get better as we go along. They don't have to worry about being the best right off the hop."
And it's not a bad year to be rebuilding in the Central Division, where everyone seems to be in the same boat.
"A lot of teams have lost a lot of key guys," Kisio says. "Medicine Hat, Red Deer, they've lost some guys, too.
The division-champion Medicine Hat Tigers lost captain Steve Marr, their top two scorers in Stefan Meyer and Clarke MacArthur and goaltender Kevin Nastiuk. D-man Cam Barker will likely stick with the Chicago Blackhawks as well.
Lethbridge said goodbye to captain Brent Seabrook, Eastern Conference goaltender of the year Aaron Sorochan and leading goal-scorer Jonathan Filewich.
Red Deer lost world junior stars Dion Phaneuf and Colin Fraser, while Swift Current is still rebuilding after missing the post-season last spring.
The Hitmen were in a near identical situation four years ago.
The club lost its top half-dozen scorers from the previous season and everyone wondered where the scoring was going to come from.
Kisio grabbed overage centre Tyler Beechey from Kootenay early in the season and the sniper went on to score 44 goals and 99 points.
Kisio, who has four overagers on the roster and must trade or release one in the next two weeks, would love to add another 20-year-old scorer. If only he could find one.
"Not that I can see," Kisio says when asked if there's another Beechey lying in the weeds. "There's probably some guys out there but I don't think they'll be available as of yet."
The 2001-02 Hitmen also received massive contributions from forwards Brandon Segal and Owen Fussey, who scored 43 goals apiece.
There likely isn't a 40-goal scorer on the Hitmen roster this season. But veterans Brodie Dupont, Riley Merkley and Ryan White will need to score by committee for this offensively challenged team to win.
The good news is on the back end where all eight defencemen return to the fold.
In fact, with rookie Curtis Kelner cracking the lineup, the Hitmen have nine blueliners. Kisio plans to move overage d-man Brett Carson up front for at least the first few games.
"He's skilled enough to play up there," Kisio says. "We'll give him a shot there and see what happens."
And goalie Justin Pogge gives the Hitmen a proven No. 1 'tender going into a season for the first time in four years.
It's a luxury Kisio's not used to.
"Yeah, at least I was able to sleep this summer," he says.