There is always optimism heading into a Guelph Storm season, which starts Friday night when the Saginaw Spirit visits. But this year it seems justified.
And we're not talking about toe-the-party-line variety that a team's personnel will espouse before every season. We're talking about reason to be optimistic that this team has legitimately improved over last season. (Insert "well they couldn't be any worse!" comment here...)
Unfortunately, so have most of the other teams in the Western Conference, which is why I'm still picking the Storm to be in a battle for seventh or eighth spot in the conference at the end of the season.
But they should take that next step.
The team seems to be finally on the right track to building at least a contender for home ice in the playoffs next season. This year is about making the playoffs.
The young players are getting better, due in large part to the huge amount of ice time most of them received last year, and the team's defence corps is a very experienced and deep group. The addition of Ryan Merkley, Dmitri Samorukov and Albert Michnac has also seriously upgraded the skill level of the team.
There should also be some marketable older commodities in demand at the trade deadline to help build that future.
"I don't want to put expectations or a number on the team," coach Jarrod Skalde said. "Our expectation is to come out with a lot of energy, a lot of speed and enthusiasm."
The big question is who blossoms, particularly in the goal scoring department.
Skalde knows that for this team to progress there is a group of players that has to take that next step.
The hall pass for young players is over. Isaac Ratcliffe, Nick Deakin-Poot, Liam Stevens and Nic Sicoly now have to be part of the answer, not the question.
You look at guys like that, you expect them to take that step. They've been around the loop once, they've seen the league and know what it's about," Skalde said. "You expect them to take on more of a role now."
Scoring goals was the biggest issue last season, with Guelph scoring a league-worst 156 times. Skalde thinks that will improve.
"To say exactly who it's coming from? Again, the expectation is that some guys will improve in that area ... but by playing fast I think we're going to improve our goal production."
There are still questions that need to be answered, health to be maintained and the team is still thin down the middle, but it will be better, more fun to watch and a precursor of a bright future.
For the first time in a couple of years, there is light at the end of the tunnel.