Only two points separated the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning in last year's Atlantic Division race. The Canadiens came out on top, but it was the Lightning who won their second-round playoff matchup and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. More excitement is in the cards for 2015-2016; at press time, Tampa Bay is the +215 favorite to win the Atlantic, followed closely by Montreal at +240.

You could argue that the Lightning were the better team during the 2014-2015 regular season, too. They had a goal differential of +51 last year, compared to +32 for the Habs. Montreal's edge came in the shootouts, where Hart and Vezina winner Carey Price helped lead the Canadiens to a 7-5 record. Ben Bishop and the Bolts went 3-5. Switching the five-minute overtime period from 4-on-4 hockey to 3-on-3 could cut into Montreal's shootout advantage; then again, having Price between the pipes will be even more important during overtime.

 

The Contenders

The Boston Bruins (+550) pulled off a rare feat last year, going from No. 1 overall in the 2013-2014 standings to missing the playoffs. Boston is expected to rebound this year, but we’re not sure where the improvement will come from. Injuries weren't a big part of the equation, and star defenseman Zdeno Chara (4.5 Point Shares last year) suffered a steep decline last year at age 37. Chara also suffered an “upper-body injury” in Thursday's preseason game against the New York Rangers.

If someone's going to get in the mix with Tampa Bay and Montreal, it'll likely be one of the other second-tier contenders for the Atlantic crown. The Detroit Red Wings (+650) and Ottawa Senators (+700) both made the playoffs last year, although Ottawa needed an unusually hot performance from rookie netminder Andrew Hammond (.941 SV%) to get the job done. Detroit's relative stability as a franchise gives the Wings more betting value.

There could be some merit in taking a flier on the Florida Panthers at +1000. GM Dale Tallon helped make the Chicago Blackhawks a Cup winner, but he might have to put in some more work before the Panthers are ready for prime time. Otherwise, it's a race to the bottom of the Atlantic between the Toronto Maple Leafs (+2000) and the Buffalo Sabres (+2200). Buffalo's rebuilding project appears to be further along at this point.

BET ON NHL FUTURES

 

*Odds as of October 1, 2015