Pittsburgh Penguins, 50-21-11, won the Stanley Cup, $3.3 million in cap space
Biggest changes: How can a team lose a three-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury), a trio of clutch playoff forwards (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen) and three reliable defensemen (Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit) and still have a shot at becoming the first team to three-peat as Stanley Cup champs since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983? Coach Mike Sullivan is about to find out. The Penguins saw their depth stripped to the core over the summer and have little to show in replacement value. Goaltender Antti Niemi, who led the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010, signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Penguins, his fourth NHL team in seven years. Niemi's stock has fallen in recent years, and he replaces the popular and reliable Fleury, who helped get the Penguins into the conference finals until Matt Murray returned from injury to win two more rounds and his second Stanley Cup in as many seasons. Up front, the Pens are hoping the heavy-hitting Ryan Reaves (27 goals, 695 penalty minutes in seven seasons with the St. Louis Blues) provides physicality after arriving in a trade and that Jake Guentzel adds the same kind of offense he delivered as a rookie last season (16 goals in 40 games; 13 goals in 25 playoff games). On the back end, sure-handed free-agent acquisition Matt Hunwick is expected to help ease the departures of Daley, Hainsey and Streit, but it won't be easy as the Penguins rely more heavily on Justin Schultz, Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin.
Case for: Any lineup with a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is capable of winning a Stanley Cup, but this one will need a healthy Kris Letang to take a crack at a third straight Cup. After season-ending neck surgery, Letang spent the summer working out with former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, and all reports say Letang is ready to carry the load on the blue line. With Crosby (44 goals), Malkin (33), Phil Kessel (23), Conor Sheary (23) and Patric Hornqvist (21) leading the charge, the Penguins scored more goals (278) than any team in the NHL last season. The departures of Bonino (18 goals), Cullen (13) and Kunitz (9) will hurt the chances of the Pens outscoring teams the way they did last season, but if depth forwards Carter Rowney, Greg McKegg and Scott Wilson can contribute offensively, and Olli Maatta rebounds from a shaky season, the Pens will be a force come playoff time.
Case against: In addition to losing seven key players from last season's championship team, the Penguins lost a cap-crunching assistant general manager when Jason Botterill was hired as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres and a tough-talking assistant coach when Rick Tocchet took the head job with the Arizona Coyotes. Tocchet managed to get the best out of Kessel, and his reassuring presence behind the bench will be missed. Tocchet's replacement, Hall of Famer Mark Recchi, has plenty of experience to share and should add a creative flair to the power play, which finished tied for third in the NHL last season. Murray has never faced the rigors of being a No. 1 goalie for an entire NHL season, and with Fleury gone, this is his first opportunity to carry the load. The 23-year-old saw a career-high 49 games last season and could see that number climb considerably this season. There is also the issue of team fatigue. No team in the NHL has played in more games (213) than the Penguins the past two seasons, although the league's decision to not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics should keep Crosby and Malkin fresh down the stretch.
Trade bait: The Penguins can't afford to lose anyone off their roster, but keep an eye on Maatta, who missed 104 games to injury in his past three seasons. Maatta could begin the season on a top unit alongside Letang, but if he struggles with the heavy minutes, he could become an attractive trade piece. Winger Carl Hagelin has two years and $8 million remaining on his contract and could also be dealt if the Pens feel the need to add depth at forward or on the blue line.
Goalie-situation rating: 9. Murray has lived a charmed life in the NHL, carrying the Penguins to consecutive Cups in his first two seasons while posting a regular-season record of 41-12-5 with a 2.32 goals-against average and a playoff record of 22-9 with a 1.95 GAA. The lanky 6-foot-4 native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, no longer has the luxury of sharing the net with Fleury. Niemi, 34, will look to rebound from a pair of rocky seasons in Dallas, where he failed to win more games than he lost (12-12-4) for the first time since his rookie season of 2008-09. If Niemi struggles, don't be surprised if rookie Tristan Jarry plays a handful of NHL games this season.
Scout's take: "They're the early favorites to be the top team in the league because of their depth and the high-end skill they have in their core with Crosby, Malkin, Letang and a goaltender who's already won two Stanley Cups. They have a great foundation for success, and they know how to win. I also like their head coach's swagger and his approach with his players. He's direct and honest, and they play hard for him. They're at the top right now, and I expect they'll stay there."
Prediction: 2nd in Metropolitan Division