The term "Black Aces" gets thrown around a lot during playoff time in the NHL, and it's a badass term, but what exactly is a Black Ace and what purpose do they serve? With Providence eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs, Boston will be picking a select few from the AHL roster to join the team's playoff run under the status of "Black Ace." Sometimes, the players they pick can be a bit of a surprise, but that's because the role of Black Aces in general is generally strange.
While an NHL team's AHL affiliate is making a playoff run, they don't need to have any designated Black Aces for the obvious reason that the players are staying in shape through the rigorous task of being in a playoff series. If that team fails to qualify for the playoffs (as Providence usually does) or is eliminated, then the NHL team needs to retain some players.
The history of both the practice of using Black Aces and the term itself is interesting, but a post I will save for someone better a relaying history, but it's interesting to note that it ties directly to Eddie Shore and the Boston Bruins and his desire to punish players by banishing them to daunting tasks in the minor leagues until he was ready to bring them back up to the NHL.
Over the years...Black Aces have come to have a much more positive meaning; more akin to an "ace up the sleeve" that a hockey team can draw upon to help win a game in times of adversity.
As the playoff season kicks off, the Bruins - and most other teams - keep around a dozen players from their AHL affiliate. These players don't actually join the NHL club, however. At least. not right away.
Unless you're a goalie. Goalies always get a free pass right to NHL practices.
The rest of the Black Aces, as in years past for the Bruins, remain in Providence for weeks, training with assistant coaches in their own on and off-ice workout sessions to stay in shape. If for some reason, a player gets injured and reinforcements are needed on the front lines in Boston, then another player will join practices with the big team. But Black Aces won't really see game time. Practice time with the team is their biggest hope, but their main purpose is purely to exist 'just in case'.
The Detroit Red Wings put together a video on their Black Aces from the Grand Rapids Griffins back in 2009. At that point, it is later in the playoff run, so there are only a handful of Black Aces left. With each round, a few more players get sent home. Anyway, in this case, goaltender Jimmy Howard is still a Black Ace, talking about his role in practices and just being around the team. He uses the phrase "foot-in-the-door" to describe the opportunity to be practicing with the team at that time, late in a playoff run.
Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino are two other members of the Red Wings Black Aces squad discussing the excitement and importance of being around the team at that time, even if it is simply in that distant role. It speaks to the importance of simply being in the environment, because all of those players go on almost immediately the following season to be NHL players and succeed in the playoffs. The same can be said for Bruins Black Aces, as I will illustrate below.
"Some are here to watch and learn…some are here to be ready to play if something happens," a Red Wings player says.
In 2011, the Bruins retained 12 players from Providence at the conclusion of the AHL season because the P-Bruins sucked once again and didn't make the playoffs. They all remained in Providence for the beginning of the playoffs, except for Anton Khudobin...because goalies always get a free pass to NHL practices.
As the Bruins advanced, players got sent home. By the finals, the remaining Aces were Jordan Caron, Trent Whitfield, Jamie Arniel, Khudobin, and defensemen Colby Cohen and Matt Bartkowski.
Khudobin, Caron, and Bartkowski are all obviously still major presences on the team - well, Bartkowski in particular. I suspect Caron will be a Black Ace again. It's worth noting that Arniel is the only one of the 2011 Aces that is no longer with the team in any way.
Caron ended up practicing with the team after Nathan Horton was injured in the finals. Although he never played in a game, he was the next-next in line in case another forward got hurt, in which case he was the next in line. That was probably valuable experienced because he played playoff games for Boston the very next season against the Capitals.
In the 2012 season, the players retained for the playoff run (that ended in the first round because I HATE YOU WASHINGTON) were Andrew Bodnarchuk, Kevan Miller, David Warsofsky, Carter Camper, Craig Cunningham, Josh Hennessy, Lane MacDermid (crying forever, goodbye), Max Sauve, Ryan Spooner and Whitfield. Those players remained in Providence to practice, once again.
The idea that the Black Aces are removed from the rest of the team is probably true in the sense that...they are removed for a portion of the playoffs. It all depends on how far the team advances.
The problem with predicting who the Bruins will keep for Black Aces this season is that they have a lot of forwards already waiting in the wings as healthy scratches as it is - Carl Soderberg, Kaspars Daugavins, and Jay Pandolfo. But I don't think that will stop them from keeping as many players as possible, because it is still good experience, and some of those players might be ideal to step in if, God forbid, there are any injuries in that position.
I think we can bet sure money Jordan Caron will be called up. He's probably galloping up 93 North as we speak. Beyond that, I will just close my eyes and shoot darts at names on the wall. Craig Cunningham, Carter Camper, and Ryan Spooner seem like the most deserving, but I am sure Chris Bourque will work his way in there, if they choose to keep that many forwards.
I would say Spooner is the best bet just because being a Black Ace also means extra time for the coaches to make you work on your game, which I think Spooner certainly needs. Although, so do a lot of the young players.
On defense, I would imagine David Warsofsky and Tommy Cross will be automatic. Kevan Miller might have been considered, but he was playing through an injury during the AHL playoffs as it was.
Despite being pulled in game one of the first round and the final elmination game seven last night, Niklas Svedberg should be expected to be called up to join the team to practice right away. Because, as Sarah said it best, we can't expect [Tuukka Rask's favorite player] Bob Essensa to gear up in net every day for practice. That's just hilarious.
EDIT (May 24th): It has been announced that the only player that will be joining the Boston Bruins is Svedberg. He will be joining the team for practices because as the third goalie, and everyone else is going home from Providence.
This is kind of surprising to me, simply because I don't think the Bruins have a hell of a lot of depth on defense. Black Aces are around in case of a terrible catastrophe, and Aaron Johnson is currently the only healthy scratched defenseman. However, it also makes sense because Black Aces, aside from goaltenders like Svedberg, don't join the regular team for practices, and it would be useless to keep one or two defensemen around in Providence practicing by themselves.
Please remember that just because Svedberg has been called up to be a Black Ace, it does not mean he will be dressing for any games. They do this every year - bring in a third goalie for practice purposes. It had been Khudobin the past two years. I look forward to seeing him practice with the big team though!