Toronto Maple Leafs, 40-27-15, lost in first round, $0 in cap space
Biggest changes: Having signed free agent left winger Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75 million contract, the biggest challenge for head coach Mike Babcock might be managing the expectations of a fan base thirsting for its first Stanley Cup since 1967. Marleau, 37, should add just what the Maple Leafs are looking for -- a savvy, unselfish veteran who can be a sounding board for 20-year-old sensation Auston Matthews as both pursue their first Stanley Cup. Marleau brings 177 games (and 120 points) of playoff experience to a youthful Leafs team that improved its point total by 26 last season and pushed the Washington Capitals -- back-to-back Presidents' Trophy winners and Cup favorites -- to six games in the opening round of the playoffs. Marleau's presence on and off the ice should do wonders for a trio of forwards who are beginning their second full NHL seasons: Matthews (40 goals, 69 points); 20-year-old Mitch Marner (19 goals, 61 points); and 21-year-old William Nylander (22 goals, 61 points). "We have expectations of our own," Nylander said. "We want to go just as far as the fans do." The Leafs also signed checking-line center Dominic Moore, who has 99 games of playoff experience, to a one-year, $1 million contract; and they signed veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who won a Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring, to a two-year, $6 million deal. Those pickups offset the free-agent departures of center Brian Boyle and defenseman Matt Hunwick.
Case for: Critics will say the Leafs achieved too much, too soon last season and will have a tough time matching those accomplishments. Babcock is the great equalizer. Considered one of the best tactical coaches in the game, his relationship with Marleau -- he coached him to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014 -- should make it easy to integrate him into the lineup, even if it's in a third-line role behind talented left wingers Zach Hyman and James van Riemsdyk. Marleau will see plenty of ice time with Matthews on the power play, which improved from 29th in 2015-16 to second last season, led by Nazem Kadri's 12 power-play goals and 20-plus power-play points by Nylander, Marner and Matthews. There is no reason to think the Leafs won't be near the top of the NHL in goals per game. And their blue line is young but solid, with Hainsey adding experience to a group that includes Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly, Martin Marincin and Connor Carrick, all 27 or younger. Goaltender Frederik Andersen proved he can perform under an intense spotlight, giving the Leafs every reason to believe they can win the Atlantic Division this season.
Case against: Aside from not winning a couple of playoff overtime games against the Capitals, nearly everything went right for the Maple Leafs last season. And having that happen again would be tempting fate, right? Truth be told, if the Maple Leafs won even half of the overtime games they lost during the season (they tied the Carolina Hurricanes with a league-high 15 overtime losses), they would have challenged the Montreal Canadiens for the Atlantic title. So, the biggest obstacle facing the Leafs this season is overconfidence. Even with the addition of Hainsey, their blue line lacks depth and experience and will be tested if even one or two injuries occur. Andersen is coming off the busiest season of his career (66 starts) and will need to be just as durable with the aging Curtis McElhinney, 34, as his backup. In other words, if third-string goalie Garret Sparks sees action, the Leafs are in trouble.
Trade bait: If Moore sticks as a fourth-line center, the Leafs could trade Eric Fehr, who has one year remaining on a three-year, $6 million deal, for defensive or goaltending depth. Others who will be unrestricted after this season are forwards van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Ben Smith and Moore.
Goalie situation rating: 7. Given the chance to be an undisputed No. 1, Andersen proved he's capable, going 33-16-14 with a rather ordinary 2.67 goals-against average and .916 save percentage, while playing roughly 1,000 minutes more than he did the season before with the Anaheim Ducks. Anderson, 27, still has four years remaining on a five-year, $25 million contract and looks very capable of earning every penny. McElhinney, who has two years remaining on a deal that pays him $850,000 a season, went a pedestrian 6-7-0 with a 2.85 GAA and .914 save percentage, not exactly confidence-inspiring numbers if Anderson doesn't stay healthy.
Scout's take: "The expectations are different this year for that team. They play in a top media market and living up to expectations will challenge their team, but they have plenty of talent to be able to do it. Babcock is a hard-driving coach and that, coupled with the media, puts a little more pressure on those guys."
Prediction: 1st in Atlantic