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NHL Playoffs: Projecting the Pittsburgh Penguins Black Aces

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Sam Poulin Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins Sam Poulin: Photo by Dan Kingerski. All Rights Reserved.

The term Black Aces was not much of a discussion around the Pittsburgh Penguins until the back-to-back Stanley Cup runs of 2016 and 2017, mainly because the term became more popular in the years after the Penguins 2009 Cup win. In the absence of a current AHL season, the Black Aces will be more valuable to the 2020 Stanley Cup chase than ever before.

For the uninitiated, Black Aces are the extra players from the organization who practice separately during the playoffs in an effort to stay ready should the team need to recall them. It’s usually a chance for teams to keep a few veteran bubble players handy and mix a few prospects who get to see how the top-level pros handle business.

However, given the unique situation of a 24-team tournament in the middle of the summer for the 2020 Stanley Cup, and limited resources, teams won’t have the luxury of tagalongs. Thus we don’t foresee first-year pros like P-O Joseph or Jordy Bellerive getting the Black Aces call.

In a way, that’s sad for a lot of teams and denies organizations the chance to further their prospects. Welcome to 2020.

The general consensus, before the small details are hammered out by the NHL and NHLPA return to play committee, is teams will have 30-player rosters. For most of the season, the Penguins carried just 21 or 22 players, short of the 23-player maximum for salary cap purposes.

Another note, salary cap restrictions will not exist in the playoffs, which is why the Penguins won’t have to worry about Jake Guentzel rejoining the lineup for any format of an NHL return which begins with the playoffs.

And, Dominik Simon had shoulder surgery and will be out for at least six months.

Numbers

The Penguins will have an interesting decision with their 30 space allotment. The team has 24 NHL players ready to go, presumably including Guentzel and Nick Bjugstad, but without Simon. In a twist, if the NHL had been able to finish the regular season in July, the Penguins would have been forced to slip a player through waivers or perhaps lose one.

The count is 14 forwards, eight defensemen, two goalies, which allows them six more spaces.

Working Backward: Goalies

In 2016, injuries to Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray forced the Penguins to play their third goalie, Jeff Zatkoff. In 2017, Matt Murray suffered a lower body injury in warmups before the first playoff game and was unavailable for the first two-plus rounds. The Penguins again dressed their third goalie.

Anyone remember emergency goalie David Ayers winning a game for the Carolina Hurricanes a few months ago?

Will the Penguins carry only one spare goalie or could they carry two thus reducing their available skaters to five. Ordinarily, three or four goalies is an irrelevant question more suited for late-night message board fights, but now it becomes a valuable spot.

Will the Penguins also activate Dustin Tokarski, who played 34 NHL regular-season games with three teams and has five games of NHL playoff experience with the Montreal Canadiens, as their fourth goalie and use that spot?

We’re going to guess the Penguins stick with three goalies and hope the hockey gods do not again foist a near laughable number of injuries upon the Penguins.

Projection: Casey DeSmith, whom the Penguins initially slated to be their backup goalie this season and is currently on an NHL contract, will be the only Black Ace goalie.

Pittsburgh Penguins Forwards

Adding Guentzel, and likely Bjugstad but subtracting Simon gives the Penguins NHL 14 forwards, just two extra. Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello are the next two in line which will give the Penguins four extra forwards.

Thomas Di Pauli played two NHL games on the wing late in the season and occasionally center in WBS. He is the big body, corner worker-type the Penguins seem to like on their fourth line.

Kevin Roy, 27, is a left winger who played 28 NHL games for the Anaheim Ducks. Pittsburgh native Riley Barber, 26, is a tough player who played 12 games with Washington and Montreal. The Penguins organization acquired both at the NHL trade deadline in minor moves which included sending frequent call-up Joseph Blandisi going to Montreal.

Blandisi was the Penguins most frequent recall, and at one point this season he played four games in four days between the WBS Penguins and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Barber and Roy are the most experienced among the WBS forwards, so they’re a solid bet to be at the front of the line.

The Penguins called up Adam Johnson for six games early in the season, and seven games last season, but he was not called up again this season despite the frequent shuttle service between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh due to the mounting injuries. He scored 34 points in 48 AHL games (10g, 24a), has ample speed, but is also slight. His chances of being a Black Ace are strong on paper, but the lack of callup later in the season is telling.

Fortunately, the Penguins roster has a pair of wingers who are natural centers. Jared McCann and Patrick Marleau are natural in the middle should one or multiple centers be injured. That also means the Penguins can recall the best forwards, without being position specific.

The Penguins did lose Andrew Aggozzino on waivers to Anaheim, which was a move that surprised and upset some in the Penguins organization. Aggozzino would have been a sure bet and a depth center. He did play five games with Anaheim before the NHL season pause.

Projections: Di Pauli, Roy, Barber.

Crazy idea: Given the lack of overwhelming options, the Penguins could include 2019 first-round pick, Sam Poulin. Poulin tore up the QMJHL this season, especially in January with 19 points in a five-game span. It doesn’t seem likely, but the idea can’t be dismissed, either.

Injuries ravaged the Penguins blueline his season, too. The Penguins carried eight defensemen including spares Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel. Two more defensemen would give the Penguins 10 available defensemen and provide Mike Sullivan with ample choices based on the opponent.

The Penguins currently have one spare right-handed defenseman and one spare left, with Ruhwedel and Riikola, respectively.

Zach Trotman will serve as the depth RHD and Kevin Czuczman will serve as the depth lefty. Both have NHL experience.

The Black Aces

Thomas Di Pauli — Kevin Roy — Riley Barber,

Kevin Czuczman – Zach Trotman

Casey DeSmith

Should the NHL return to play committee indeed set the roster size at 30, these are the likeliest Black Aces. However, as of last weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins had not yet begun their selection process, according to WBS head coach and GM Mike Vellucci.

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