As we draw nearer to the possible return of hockey, one term you may hear a lot in the coming days is "black ace." No, that is not what Vegas named its AHL team -- they will be the Silver Knights -- though it seems like a missed opportunity. A black ace refers to the several depth and practice players who are recalled for the playoffs.
During the regular season, every NHL team can carry a maximum of 23 players on the roster so long as that roster remains within the salary cap limits. Once the regular season is over, those roster limitations no longer apply. A team can carry as many players as it wants. As a result, teams recall several prospects for their postseason run, especially once their AHL affiliate is eliminated from the playoffs.
If a team was able to get through a season with a limited roster, why does it matter that they can recall prospects or minor leaguers in the playoffs? There are a few reasons for this.
First is attrition. When a team goes all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, it adds an extra two months to their calendar and it is grueling, physical, competitive hockey. Injuries and suspensions happen or coaches decide they need to change things up and teams need to have players ready to go to plug into the lineup. The second reason is practice. Because of the grueling nature of the postseason, most practice days end up being voluntary. If you do want to practice, there's not much you can get out of it if you're one of only three players and there are no goalies. Black aces will always practice ensuring the players who do want to practice still will have plenty of teammates to skate with. The third reason is for experience.
In a video conference in May, Brian MacLellan mentioned that the team was considering bringing 2019 first-round draft pick Connor McMichael to the playoffs as a black ace. As a 181-pound junior player with no NHL or even AHL experience, chances are remote that McMichael would actually play. He would certainly not be among the first choices to plug into the lineup if Washington were to suffer an injury.
So why take him? Because he will get valuable experience by being there. He will sit in on all the meetings, take part in all the practices and get to see the amount of preparation that goes into the NHL playoffs.
McMichael is a player the Caps see as a future NHL player. This is the kind of thing he can learn best by experiencing it for himself.
Unlike in a normal postseason, the 2020 postseason roster actually will be somewhat limited. There are no salary cap limitations, but, because the NHL wants to limit the number of people the team brings with it to the hub cities, only 28 skaters will be permitted to go along with an unlimited number of goalies. That will limit the number of black aces we see, though it appears a few of them are already on their way back to Washington.
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