The Maple Leafs are back today, and so is John Ferguson. For now.
With management having reneged on its promise to lock up the general manager beyond 2008, there is little doubt that this will be a make-or-break season for Ferguson in Toronto.
But having little job security isn't about to scare off the Leafs GM, who might yet get that much-desired extension he craves should the Leafs be as successful as he believes they will.
And if he doesn't?
"I'm not afraid of free agency, "Ferguson said last night of his job situation, a stance he has maintained all summer.
Questioned for overspending on Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill in the summer of 2006, Ferguson rebounded by improving his team with the solid acquisitions of speedy forward Jason Blake and potential starting goaltender Vesa Toskala this past off-season.
As Blake, Toskala and the controversial Mark Bell join their teammates for medicals today, an optimistic Ferguson, much like second-year head coach Paul Maurice, have set lofty goals for a franchise that has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
"I do not view this season in any way other than with confidence that we will make the playoffs and challenge for a Stanley Cup," Ferguson said last night. "We have improved ourselves up front and in goal.
"There is a great deal of opportunity for all of us here."
An enthusiastic Blake, for one, echoes those sentiments. The feisty forward is champing at the bit to get out on to the ice for the club's first training camp workout at the Ricoh Coliseum tomorrow.
After spending so many years toiling for the New York Islanders at the Nassau Mausoleum, Blake, 32, feels like his hockey career is starting over.
"I'm like a kid again," said Blake, whose 40 goals last season helped him land a five-year, $20 million US deal with Toronto. "Playing in such a rabid hockey market is what I've dreamed about doing.
"Meeting the new guys, getting ready for the season, it's all helped to increase the fire inside of me."
As Blake and his teammates prepare to be endlessly poked and prodded today, all eyes will be on the hip of captain Mats Sundin and knee of defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo.
During the summer, medical experts in both Sweden and North America claimed Sundin would not require surgery to repair the torn labrum in his hip, clearing the way for him to ink a one-year, $5.5- million US pact.
Colaiacovo, meanwhile, underwent knee surgery during the spring and is confident he'll be ready.
The media zoo that resulted from the 15-game suspension handed out to Bell yesterday likely will die down should the Leafs get off to a good start. If they don't, Ferguson, rightly or wrongly, will be further criticized for acquiring Bell in the first place.
But right now, Ferguson prefers to concentrate on playoffs, not layoffs.