After two seasons of returning stars and highly-credentialled recruits hugely influencing the fortunes of Maitland district cricket clubs, season 2020-21 appears to be more about who is not playing and club depth.
A collective sigh of relief went around seven of the eight first grade clubs when prodigiously talented Norths junior Will Fort signed with Sydney Cricket Club instead of heading home for a season back at Lorn Park after he parted ways with Northern Districts in Sydney grade cricket.
After finishing third last season, Fort's inclusion would have made Norths firm favourites for the title.
While the finals series didn't proceed last year, Western Suburbs were deserved minor premiers but they will be without star English all-rounder Elliott Lewis and missing premier batsman Aaron Mahony for part of the season.
Eastern Suburbs and Raymond Terrace have suffered the biggest exodus of high-end talent. The Griffins start 2020-21 without Trent Park, Josh Hicks and Englishman Toby Godfray, while Raymond Terrace have lost star paceman Cameron Bates and talented teenagers Alex Lidbury and Sidney Searle.
Tenambit-Morpeth have picked up Lidbury and Searle and Bates returns home to Kurri Weston.
Last year: Second
Losses: Wayne Dunlop and Matt Latham.
Gains: Michael Heinrich, Karl Bowd and Jock Vivers.
If anything throws City's season out of whack it will be losing probably the best wicketkeeper/batsman in the competition in Matt Latham for the 2020-21 season.
Latham and batsman Wayne Dunlop, who has decided to test himself in Newcastle, are the two biggest losses for the club with has boosted its depth with the return of several players..
"I don't think we can replace him as wicketkeeper but we've got some good depth coming back in batting to cover him," City skipper Matt Trappel said of Latham.
Andrew Vickery, who kept at Easts, will take the gloves, but it takes his spin-bowling out of the equation. Nick Bower has been talked out of retirement and he and fellow all-rounder Todd Francis, another 2019-20 recruit, will handle the spinning duties.
The two Tims - Baker and Burton - will again open the bowling for City with Baker having a troubling shoulder seen to over the break.
Cam Wynn, who has just been selected in the Central North U-18s team, has picked up an extra yard of pace according to Trappel and will be joined by Sam Jordan as the third and fourth pace options.
It leaves Michael Heinrich, Ricky Dent and the big-hitting Karl Bowd to fight out who takes the last batting spot.
"The biggest thing for us this year is the depth. Our second grade this year will be better than some of the first grade teams I've played in at City," Trappel said.
Last season: Fifth
Losses: Trent Park, Josh Hicks, Toby Godfrey
It's one step forward and two steps back for Eastern Suburbs who go into 2020-21 without key trio Trent Park, Josh Hicks and Englishman Toby Godfrey who had been pivotal in taking the Griffins to the verge of finals last year.
Easts have tremendous juniors coming through - led by Tom Porter, Jet Lee and Joe Hancock who will be given plenty of opportunities in first grade after all made their debuts in the senior ranks last year.
Skipper Michael Gavan said this season was about development of players but there was enough talent to push sides with Cal Sargent, Lachy Wishart and Will Stoneman stepping up into more senior roles.
Last season: Third
Gains: Cameron Bates, Fletcher Sharpe, Daniel Foster
Losses: Alex Seamer
Of all the off-season gains and losses, it's hard to think of a bigger acquisition for any team than the arrival of Cameron Bates from Raymond Terrace.
The fast bowler has been a dominant player for some time and according to new skipper Steve Abel, he'll be "massive" for Kurri.
With the ever reliable Alex Seamer playing for Wallsend this season, the arrival of Bates couldn't have come at a better time.
With Jack Sylvester, he'll form a dangerous new ball attack.
"I think overall we're probably stronger than last season," Abel said. "And I believe if we can score 200 we'll beat most sides.
"To have a strong season I probably have to score more than 400 runs, and we need to have someone else step up too," Abel said.
"Josh Tuckwell is very dangerous, he's probably the one. But blokes like Liam Neild, and Fletcher Sharpe who has come across from Peden's ... hopefully they can get among the runs.
"We need to bat 80 overs, which we didn't manage a lot last season."
Gains: Brad Jenkinson
Losses: Mitch Field
Last season: Third
Northern Suburbs went from premiership favourites to a strong contender with Australian junior representative Will Fort deciding to sign with Sydney Cricket Club instead of returning to Lorn Park this season.
Skipper Lincoln Mills said while Fort's inclusion was a pipe dream, Mitch Field's decision to sit out this season will have a profound impact on the club's chances.
"Mitch is a really big out for us, particularly the way he finished last season," Mills said.
The Black Caps have added all-rounder Brand Jenkinson, from Gunnedah, to their ranks but will be looking for improvement from their juniors to push their case this year.
Norths are expecting big years from Ben Sugden, Logan Smith and Sean Gibson and are hoping one or all three will have similar breakout seasons to that of Cal Gabriel in 2019-20.
Gabriel fielded a number of offers from Newcastle clubs but has decided to stay put.
"It's massive for our club. He will be a key to our success this year," Mills said.
Losses: Cameron Bates, Alex Lidbury, Sidney Searle
After losing premier fast bowler Cam Bates and highly talented teenagers Alex Lidbury and Sidney Searle it could be a long season for Raymond Terrace.
The club is still in negotiation with a couple of players but will have to look to the development of several talented youngsters to take them forward, chief among them Lachlan Page.
"It's going to be interesting to see how we start as it appears there has been a lot of change at all the clubs," skipper Steve Smith said.
Last season: Eighth
Gains: Hunter Ball, Alex Lidbury, Sidney Searle, Sean McDonald
Losses: Baylee Borrow, Daniel Bashford, Andrew Bashford
Losing their highest run scorer Daniel Bashford and most promising junior Baylee Borrow is not an ideal way to start the new season but Tenambit Morpeth skipper Shane Wind is confident his side is on the right track.
Borrow has gone to the Newcastle comp and Bashford and his brother Andrew are taking a break, but the Bulls have made some good signings.
Teenage pace duo Sidney Searle and Alex Lidbury have joined from Raymond Terrace. Wind said they will be part of a strong group of 17 and 18-year-olds pushing through this year.
All-rounder Sean McDonald and wicket keeper batsman Hunter Ball also join the club.
Wind said they aimed to be competitive once again this season and needed to improve their scoring and particularly fielding with dropped chances costly.
Gains: Chris Archer
Losses: Mitchell Cox
Last season: Seventh
Who are you playing ... the early season Thornton or the end-of-season Thornton?
That's the question opposing sides have been asking, because in recent years they've been two very different sides.
"Our starts to the season have been really bad and it has left us too much ground to make up," new captain Matt Gabriel said.
"It has been hard to organise pre-season trials with COVID, so we've worked a lot harder at pre-season training this year to try to fix this."
Hard hitting middle order batsman Chris Archer returns to the club, but that has been offset by the loss of fast bowler Mitchell Cox, a departure Gabriel admits "will hurt".
It puts a lot of pressure on to Elliott Thompson who provides the only genuine pace, supported by medium pacers Brent Dawes and Jake Reeves who will bowl a lot of overs. Off-spinner Daniel Willis has been the leading wicket-taker in recent seasons and will again have a major role to play.
"We're a fast bowler light, so our batting is going to have to score enough runs for our attack to work with," Gabriel said.
"But our batting looks quite strong. Chris Archer's return helps there, and I expect Jake Moore to have a strong season now that he doesn't have the added responsibility of captaincy.
"Our opener Jamie Krake is a rock, a perfect foil for my brother Jono who is very aggressive. Hopefully I can chip in and bat for long periods. I think if we bat well we're good enough for a top four spot for sure."
Gains: Harry King, Sam Collison
Losses: Elliott Lewis
Last season: Minor premiers
Just how big a hole will the loss of English all-rounder Elliott Lewis be?
New captain Mitchell Fisher, who's replacing Tom Irwin in charge this year, says it will be sizeable.
"He probably took about 28 wickets scored over 300 runs last season, so that's a hole in any side," Fisher said.
On top of that, gun No.3 batsman Aaron Mahoney has informed the club he will be unavailable for a number of games this year. So it's probably no surprise Fisher believes the question mark over his side will be the batting.
"We bat down a long way and we have two good openers," he said. "But it's that one extra outstanding top order batsman we need - especially with Aaron likely to miss a few games."
Fisher expects young opening batsman Shannon Threlfo to step up and have a good season. Another acquisition is batsman Sam Collison who is captaining the seconds to start with, but who will probably see top grade action as well.
On the bowling front, the club has high hopes for new quick Harry King, formerly of the Windsor Castle. He will share the fast bowling duties with Luke Kealy and Riley Harrison.