In the midst of a pandemic it has perhaps never been harder to predict what’s ahead.
That’s particularly true when it comes to the Calgary Flames, who have been hard to peg for several years now.
However, when the boss insists you give it a try, you come up with your three best, boldest predictions for 2021.
1. The Flames will win the Canadian division
To say that signing Jacob Markstrom addressed the team’s biggest issue since Miikka Kiprusoff left would be inaccurate.
The organization’s biggest bugaboo since 2004 has been its inability to play with the big boys when it matters most, in the playoffs.
That narrative won’t change until they do something about it.
This prediction has nothing to do with that.
This is a regular-season prognostication.
The suggestion is simply that the Flames’ depth up front, combined with a renewed dedication to defence as evidenced by their impressive showing in Edmonton’s bubble, should play well into having a Vezina candidate as the team’s anchor.
Coming off strong playoffs, Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube will continue to take great strides offensively, adding to a potent top nine that includes Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund.
This team is tight enough and deep enough to endure the inevitable loss of players to positive COVID-19 tests.
The shortened season can benefit this bunch, as the core has been around for years and shouldn’t need any time to adjust to many changes.
The lads know their time is now to realize their true potential as a group.
2. Gaudreau and Monahan will have roles changed
Don’t be surprised this year when the two men long considered the face of the franchise will start to see their five-on-five playing time reduced.
Ward has the horses and the desire to roll four lines, reducing the offensive burden on Gaudreau and Monahan.
Like everyone else on the team, Ward will ask the two to continue emphasizing defensive responsibility, something Monahan worked hard at last year and Gaudreau did as well during the play-in round against Winnipeg.
Yet, in that playoff they were essentially blanked while playing at even strength.
They’ll still continue to be the team’s go-to duo on the power play, which will do well to bolster their minutes and numbers, as in years past.
While every coach loathes to number his lines, the Backlund/Mangiapane/Tkachuk line was the team’s top trio last year. Ward plans to try Elias Lindholm — his most complete forward — at centre with the likes of Dube and perhaps Josh Leivo.
That could leave Monahan to battle Sam Bennett up the middle for a third unit, which could also include having Bennett on their wing.
With all the flexibility at his disposal, expect lines to change plenty.
But one thing that could remain constant is the shift away from counting on Gaudreau and Monahan to spearhead an offence when they’ve repeatedly failed to score in the playoffs.
They are both still extremely important players, whose buy-in is critical if the team is going to fulfill my first prediction. Expect them to embrace the new roles as they’re designed to take pressure off, and help them rediscover the scoring touch they had two seasons ago.
3. Matthew Tkachuk will become a household name in Canada
By that we mean Public Enemy No. 1 in locales from Nanaimo to Newfoundland.
Outside of Southern Alberta, where fans recognize him as one of the game’s most exciting players, the Flames’ next captain is bound to enrage even the most casual of observers with a series of cross-Canada crosschecks, amongst other transgressions.
In an all-Canadian division, Tkachuk will get ample opportunities against each team to demonstrate why he’s our national super-pest.
The man who single-handedly revived the Battle of Alberta last year already has a running feud with the Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg Jets, who may still have a thing or two to say about the hit he made on Mark Scheifele that knocked him out of last year’s playoffs.
What’s bound to further enrage fans in media meccas like Toronto and Montreal are his mad skills, which made him the Flames’ leading scorer last year.
Even in Ottawa, where his brother act with young Brady is sure to draw plenty of attention, you can expect locals will quickly discover Matthew’s ability to liven the mood and change momentum with any number of tactics he learned from his dear ol’ dad.
There was no more dramatic goal scored on the planet last year than his one-time, between the legs roof job in Nashville with less than a second left in overtime:
A difference-maker in every way.
Expect plenty more jaw-dropping snipes from one of the game’s most cerebral figures — a man armed with more ways to infuriate than Trump.