Who wins the North Division? Who takes home the Stanley Cup?
CALGARY — Can the arrival of a marquee goalie and a redistribution of the goalscoring load finally produce an extended playoff run for the Calgary Flames?
The Flames have exited the first round of playoffs in mortifying fashion three of the last four years, and missed the post-season altogether in 2018.
"It's time for people to look at us as a serious contender throughout the league," Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk said.
"We have to be looked at as one of those teams that is a contender each and every season and I think we have to start proving that this year."
The Flames (36-27-7) did eliminate the Winnipeg Jets in four games in last summer's best-of-five qualifying series to advance to the opening round of playoffs.
But up 3-0 on Dallas seven minutes into a must-win Game 6, Calgary imploded and gave up seven unanswered goals to the Stars to bow out.
The Flames topped the Western Conference in 2018-19 only to fall in five games to the Colorado Avalanche. The Anaheim Ducks blew by Calgary in four straight games in 2017.
"It's been way too frustrating the past couple of years the way it's ending," Tkachuk said. "The sour taste sticks with you forever. It's time to change that this year."
Elias Lindholm centred a line with Tkachuk in training camp instead of playing on the right side of centre Sean Monahan and left-winger Johnny Gaudreau.
Lindholm led Calgary in goals last season with 29, while Gaudreau posted career-low numbers and Monahan his lowest since his rookie year.
Tkachuk led the Flames in points with 23 goals and 38 assists. Monahan, Lindholm, Mikael Backlund and Sam Bennett give Calgary depth up the middle.
"We'll use our people the best way we have to in order to win hockey games," Flames head coach Geoff Ward said. "We feel like our depth is a strength."
Lindholm's line can take offensive pressure off of and draw defensive attention away from Monahan and Gaudreau, who Ward intends to keep together.
"The amount of goals scored over the time that they've been together, there's not very many duos in the league that have been better than them," Ward said.
Calgary's goaltending carousel may have stopped with October's signing of Jacob Markstrom to a six-year, US$36-million deal.
Six-foot-six and quick, Markstrom should give the Flames year-to-year stability in net that the team hasn't enjoyed since the Miikka Kiprusoff decade (2003-13).
Getting Markstrom also brings the bonus of him no longer tending division rival Vancouver's net.
T.J. Brodie departing for Toronto leaves 24-year-old defenceman Rasmus Andersson quarterbacking the power play and playing big minutes alongside captain Mark Giordano.
The straw that stirs the drink in Calgary with a combination of sandpaper, skill and competitiveness. Tkachuk's between-the-legs overtime winner against the Nashville Predators was one of the most spectacular goals of 2019-20. The Flames felt the 23-year-old's absence when injury sidelined Tkachuk the last four games of the Dallas series.
The Flames need their 37-year-old captain maintaining 24 minutes a game against opposing team's top scorers. How much Giordano has in the tank is a question given his age, but he's less than two years removed from winning the Norris Trophy.
Calgary's first-round draft pick in 2017 travelled a long road back to the Flames' lineup. An off-season knee injury sidelined Valimaki for all of 2019-20, including the post-season. The 22-year-old Finnish defenceman got a head start on his NHL comeback, however, playing 19 games on loan to Ilves Tampere in the fall.
The interim tag was removed from Geoff Ward's title and Jason Labarbera is on board as a goaltending coach. The signing of 31-year-old defenceman Chris Tanev compensates only somewhat for experience lost in the off-season shedding of Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson. Defenceman Nikita Nesterov, as well as forwards Dominik Simon, Joakim Nordstrom and Josh Leivo join Markstrom among Flames newcomers.
The Flames get a five-day breather after their first three games to iron out early wrinkles. The highly anticipated Battle of Alberta commences Feb. 6 when the Flames host the Oilers in the first of 10 regular-season meetings. Calgary opens on the road Thursday in Winnipeg before hosting the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021.