Looking at the ‘Black Aces’ for Capitals’ playoff run

The Capitals recently announced their 34-man roster for the NHL return consisting of 20 forwards, 10 defensemen and four goaltenders. Postseason rosters are expanded every year, but this year we’ll be seeing even more reserve players than usual.

Well, scratch that. We won’t really be seeing much of these extra players, unless things go horribly wrong with the usual NHLers. Instead these players will be getting experience in practicing with the parent club. For the younger prospects just a few years away from regular time in the NHL, it’s a great developmental step.

It will be the full-time players taking the ice to try and win the Cup, but if any one of them goes down, whether it be an injury, COVID-related absence or otherwise, the 12 “Black Aces” will step up. It has happened before.

In Game 6 of the 2018 Second Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nicklas Backstrom sat out with an injury and Tom Wilson was suspended. In turn, Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker laced up and contributed to one of the biggest playoff wins in the Alex Ovechkin era. Walker even became the first Australian to tally a point in the postseason when he assisted Alex Chiasson’s goal in the second period. Point is, you never know when and if these extra players will get a chance to step up.

“Black Ace” is the name assigned to these extra players brought on for the playoff run, and this year they are almost exclusively from the Hershey Bears, the team’s AHL affiliate, but there is one notable exception. I’ve compiled some background information for all 12 players below, so you’ll be able to know a thing or two about these Black Aces should they be activated for game action.

Important note: These are the Phase 3 rosters, where the team is allowed 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goalies. The rosters will be trimmed to 28 skaters and 31 total players by the time the team goes to Toronto, so a few of the players below will not remain with the team through the playoffs.

Forwards

#63 Shane Gersich, LW

Profile:

  • Age: 24
  • Acquired: 5th round, 134th overall in 2014 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 3 GP, 0g-1a-1p
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 54 GP, 10g-8a-18p

Gersich played in three regular season games during the 2017-18 season, plus two postseason games in the team’s Stanley Cup run. After a three year career at the University at North Dakota, Gersich immediately joined the team for the playoffs and just a few months later, became a Stanley Cup champion. Quite a start to an NHL career.

Since then, Gersich has been holding down a role with the Bears, and his 18 points this season were 12th-most on the team this season. He has not appeared on the NHL level since 2018.

#16 Philippe Maillet, C

Profile:

  • Age: 27
  • Acquired: 2019 Free Agency
  • NHL career stats: 0 GP
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 61 GP, 17g-27a-44p

Maillet has not appeared in the NHL, but the Montreal native has made a major impact for the Bears in his first year with the organization. His 44 points led the team this season, and was tied for 30th across the AHL. After four years with the University of New Brunswick, Maillet went undrafted in the NHL Entry Draft and was signed by the AHL’s Ontario Reign in 2017.

In 140 games with the Reign across just over two seasons, Maillet scored 94 points, including 54 (16g, 38a) last season. Given his age and production this past season, Maillet could be a surprise candidate to take the ice in the event of an injury, but with no NHL experience, he could just as well be left behind.

#47 Beck Malenstyn, LW

Profile:

  • Age: 22
  • Acquired: 5th round, 145th overall in 2016 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 3 GP, 0g-0a-0p
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 46 GP, 7g-8a-15p

Malenstyn made his NHL debut in November, but didn’t get on the scoresheet in three games. Despite scoring just 15 points this season, Malenstyn was making great progress. A season ago, he totaled 16 points in 74 games, so he was in position to notch a new career-high had the season not been suspended.

At 6’3″, 200 pounds, Malenstyn is one of the bigger bodies on the roster. He should be able to hold his own during practices from a physical standpoint, so it’ll be interesting to see how he can utilize the opportunity. He won’t earn a full-time role from this training camp alone, but his performance for the Bears next season could be huge for his career.

#24 Connor McMichael, C

Profile:

  • Age: 19
  • Acquired: 1st round, 25th overall in 2019 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 0 GP
  • Primary team for 2019-20: London Knights (OHL)
  • 2019-20 OHL stats: 52 GP, 47g-55a-102p

At just 19 years old, McMichael is the most exciting prospect in the Capitals organization, and a spot in training camp will be great for him. He absolutely lit it up in the OHL with the Knights; his 102 points were third-most in the OHL. Drafted just over a year ago, McMichael hasn’t had a chance to make his NHL debut, but he shouldn’t be rushed.

With most of the team’s offensive core aging into their 30s, McMichael will be needed a few years down the line to replenish the scoring depth. For now, fans can just hope this experience will aid in his continuing development.

#40 Garrett Pilon, C

Profile:

  • Age: 22
  • Acquired: 3rd round, 87th overall in 2016 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 0 GP
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 61 GP, 18g-18a-36p

Pilon was fifth on the Bears in scoring this year, and the four players ahead of him were 25 or older. He’s an under-the-radar prospect that has been progressing really well. The third-round pick out of Minneola, New York upped his point production from last season in a fewer number of games and will be a name to watch in the next few years.

#64 Brian Pinho, C

Profile:

  • Age: 25
  • Acquired: 6th round, 174th overall in 2013 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 0 GP
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 62 GP, 20g-17a-37p

Pinho had an incredible four-year career with Providence College, winning the 2015 national championship as a freshman. He served as an assistant captain during his junior season and wore the ‘C’ as a senior. 2018-19 marked his first year with Hershey, where he totaled just 12 points (4g, 8a) in 73 games, but he took a major step forward this year.

The former All-Hockey East Third Teamer finished fourth on the team with 37 points. He profiles more as a career AHLer, but he may get a few cracks at the top level, especially if he impresses in camp.

#10 Daniel Sprong, RW

Profile:

  • Age: 23
  • Acquired: Trade in 2020
  • NHL career stats: 97 GP, 19g-11a-30p
  • Primary team for 2019-20: San Diego Gulls (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 44 GP, 12g-21a-33p (between San Diego and Hershey)

Sprong has the most NHL experience of anyone on this list by far. After being drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins 46th overall in 2015, Sprong bounced back and forth between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, their AHL affiliate, before getting traded to the Anaheim Ducks in 2018.

Sprong played 63 NHL games in the 2018-19 season between Pittsburgh and Anaheim, totaling 14 goals and nine assists. He was waived prior to the 2019-20 season, and after going unclaimed was sent down to Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in San Diego.

The Ducks traded Sprong to Washington at the 2020 trade deadline in exchange for defenseman Christian Djoos. Sprong played just six games in Hershey, scoring six points (1g, 5a). At 23 years old, he still has a chance to become an NHL regular again, but the Caps are much deeper at forward than Anaheim was.

Defensemen

#27 Alexander Alexeyev, LD

Profile:

  • Age: 20
  • Acquired: 1st round, 31st overall in 2018 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 0 GP
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 58 GP, 3g-18a-21p

Alexeyev was the team’s first draft pick after winning the Stanley Cup, and his presence on the roster hypothetically allows the Capitals to skate a line with a Russian at every position:

LW Ovechkin, C Evgeny Kuznetsov, RW Ilya Kovalchuk, D Dmitry Orlov, D Alexeyev, G Ilya Samsonov

This won’t happen, but Alexeyev will hope to be the next of his countrymen to do great things for the franchise. This season marked his first in Hershey, where he finished second on the team in points among defensemen. He spent the three prior seasons with the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League, where he increased his point production every season.

We may not see him in action this summer, but he is right on track to being a full-time NHLer in the coming years.

#42 Martin Fehervary, LD

Profile:

  • Age: 20
  • Acquired: 2nd round, 46th overall in 2018 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 6 GP, 0g-1a-1p
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 56 GP, 4g-10a-14p

The Slovak blueliner was drafted just 15 picks after Alexeyev and brings similar upside. Fehervary already dipped his toes in the NHL waters, appearing in six games this year. He played the first three games of the season in early October with Michal Kempny still recovering from hamstring surgery, then was recalled for three more games in early February.

After spending the brunt of his playing career in Sweden, this year marked Fehervary’s first in North America. Already a mainstay in the Bears’ lineup, Fehervary could see some playing time this summer if the team’s defensive struggles carry over. Though he’s a left-shot defenseman by trade, Fehervary has experience at both sides on defense. He’s definitely a player to look out for, if not this summer, then in 2020-21 preseason training camp.

#78 Tyler Lewington, RD

Profile:

  • Age: 25
  • Acquired: 7th round, 204th overall in 2013 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 8 GP, 1g-1a-2p
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 43 GP, 4g-9a-13p

Lewington does not have much NHL experience, but he made a real splash upon arrival in 2018-19. In his second career game, on Dec. 29, 2018 against the Ottawa Senators, Lewington recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, assist and fight in the same game). All three were firsts in Lewington’s NHL career, and the goal and assist are still his only NHL points.

That eventful night against Ottawa was his last NHL game of 2018-19, but he appeared in six games this past season. He has been playing with Hershey since 2015-16, and after averaging just over 14 points a season over the past three years, Lewington nearly matched that total in 22 fewer games played than last year. Already a proven depth option on the blue line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lewington slip into the bottom pair if necessary.

Goaltenders

#1 Pheonix Copley, G

Profile:

  • Age: 28
  • Acquired: Trade in 2017
  • NHL career stats: 29 GP, 25 GS, 16-8-3, 2.98 GAA, .901 SV%
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 31 GP, 17-8-6, 2.47 GAA, .905 SV%

Copley served as Braden Holtby’s backup with the parent club during the 2018-19 season, recording 16 wins in 24 starts and posting a respectable 2.90 goals against average and .905 save percentage. His demotion back to Hershey had more to do with the team’s salary cap situation and the emergence of Samsonov, who had a lower cap hit and was in need of NHL reps.

Copley split time in the crease with Vitek Vanecek in Hershey this season, and his year in the NHL helped his AHL performance dramatically. After going 15-17-6 with a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage in 2017-18, Copley put up much stronger numbers this season. Teams bring a third goaltender for the playoffs even in normal years, so when you take into account his NHL experience, expect Copley to stick around.

#41 Vitek Vanecek, G

Profile:

  • Age: 24
  • Acquired: 2nd round, 39th overall in 2014 Entry Draft
  • NHL career stats: 0 GP
  • Primary team for 2019-20: Hershey Bears (AHL)
  • 2019-20 AHL stats: 31 GP, 19-10-1, 2.26 GAA, .917 SV%

Vanecek is a great fourth goaltender to have, but if the team is forced to bring just three to Toronto, he may be the odd man out. That said, his numbers were better than Copley’s this year; his goals against average was fifth-best in the AHL this season, and his save percentage was 10th.

Vanecek will most likely remain an AHL-level starter with stretches of backing up at the NHL level, but he looks like a great long term depth option for the franchise. If the team strongly prioritizes this year’s performance, Vanecek may be brought along, but given the unpredictability of this year’s playoffs, the Caps will probably want someone with a solid amount of NHL experience as the third-string, and Copley checks that box.

Player headshots from Hershey Bears, OHL

Cover Photo Credit: NHL.com

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