Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Black Ace Taxi Squads & Prospect Pipeline

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at what I believe is one viable solution that would help NHL teams mediate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Second, I’ll then look at what The Athletic’s team of NHL writers believes is the long-term future of the Maple Leafs pipeline of prospects.

Item One:  Will the Maple Leafs Create a Taxi Squad of Regular-Season Black Aces?

For an NHL 2021 season to become a reality, a number of difficult issues must be addressed. No doubt these are being already discussed by the NHL and the NHL Players Association in backroom conversations. Although the promise of a vaccine’s positive impact is clearly on the horizon, there remains a potential for a COVID-19 outbreak and necessary precautions must be taken.

NHL Players Association NHLPA Donald Fehr
NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Donald Fehr (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

One of these precautions is quarantining. The reality of quarantining means player movement between NHL clubs and minor League affiliates will be close to impossible. COVID-19 restrictions simply don’t allow the ease of movement that’s historically been part of NHL teams’ regular-season operations.

In addition, there seems no choice other than to create a shortened regular-season schedule. Although nothing’s been finalized, it seems a 56-game regular-season schedule has been the negotiated landing place. Given the upcoming Olympic Games, that means the 2021 regular season will be both shortened and condensed.

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Specifically, that means more back-to-back games. Back-to-back games carry a need for players to rest more and a way for teams to cover key injuries. Condensed season injuries are more critical and difficult to cover because an injured NHL player who’s out two weeks, for example, in a condensed season would miss more games.

All these issues, taken together, suggest that if a season is to be undertaken safely, teams need larger rosters. The fact that teams will skate more players during a shortened and condensed season than during the regular season provides greater opportunities for marginal players – particularly backup goalies.

I see no other way for the 2021 regular season to commence safely unless NHL teams build and use larger rosters. Yesterday, an article by Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star, suggests that a solution that’s being discussed by the NHL right now is a possibility that each team will be able to create a permanent taxi squad. I’ll call them regular-season Black Aces. (from “Who should the Leafs carry on their taxi squad?,” Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, 16/12/20).

Over NHL history, the Black Aces are extra players added to a team’s roster for a playoff run usually after their own minor-league season is over. Black Aces practice with the team and are able to step into the lineup if a team’s regular players are unable to play. The possibility of a taxi squad of regular-season Black Aces might be quite beneficial to the Maple Leafs because of its unique make-up.

First, with a condensed schedule, the team’s older players – like Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton – might alternate games. Second, quality back-up goalies Jack Campbell or Aaron Dell become more crucial because Frederik Andersen needs more rest. Third, during the offseason, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas signed a large number of “tweeners.” These players are almost too good to play in the AHL, but not quite good enough to play in NHL. They’d be perfect Black Aces.

Aaron Dell San Jose Sharks
Maple Leafs backup goalie Aaron Dell, formerly with the San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

McGran lists the players he believes might become Maple Leafs’ regular-season Black Aces. Assuming the team can carry 21 players because of its salary cap, McGran chose seven players the team could place on a Black Ace taxi squad.

His list included: goalie Aaron Dell; defensemen Martin Marincin and Calle Rosen; and forwards Nic Petan, Pierre Engvall, Alexander Barabanov, and Travis Boyd.

What hasn’t yet been worked out are the salary repercussions of a taxi squad. Also, when regular-season Black Aces move from a taxi squad to a regular NHL roster, would they pass through waivers? Such answers seemed simple enough, but insofar as I know have not yet been answered.

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This alternative must be worked out over the next week or so. My logic suggests such a solution would allow a 2021 NHL regular season to commence and, at the same time, protect NHL players from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Item Two: What’s the Maple Leafs Prospect Pool Look Like for the Team’s Future?

A recent interesting article written by the NHL Staff of The Athletic looked at the Maple Leafs’ prospect pipeline and projected how those prospects might shape the team’s short and long-term futures. If those NHL writers are accurate, Maple Leafs’ fans need to be patient; but, there’s good news down the road. (from “How we’d run the Maple Leafs: Stay the course and hope core can hit another gear,” The Athletic NHL Staff, The Athletic, 14/12/20).

Specifically, The Athletic’s writers looked at the ages and development of the Maple Leafs’ prospects and noted they are younger. Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin are closest to ready; however, otherwise, there won’t be many quality prospects coming to the big club over the immediate future.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Alexander Kerfoot Morgan Rielly Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev, center Alexander Kerfoot, defenceman Morgan Rielly, and defenseman Rasmus Sandin celebrate a goal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Prospects like Rodion Amirov, Mikhail Abramov, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, and Nick Abruzzese aren’t yet even on the brink and shouldn’t be rushed. However, given the organization’s offseason moves to sign veterans, there’s little need to rush anyone through the system.

The Athletic’s NHL staff’s overall consensus is that “the Leafs don’t have an excellent prospect pool by any means but they’ve done a good job keeping the cupboards full in the last couple of years.”

During the 2020 draft, the Maple Leafs once again opted for skill. The organization’s first four draft choices – Amirov, Roni Hirvonen, Topi Niemela, and Artur Akhtyamov – seem to be the real deal. The quality of this 2020 draft class extends the Maple Leafs’ long-term window to win by looking down the road instead of trying to stack the cupboards for the immediate future. In summary, The Athletic writers seem to believe that, given the gift of time, the Maple Leafs have positioned themselves well.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Really, Maple Leafs’ fans – similar to fans of other NHL teams – simply must wait to see what back-room negotiations might be announced soon. There’s only a short time left to finalize plans. No doubt these discussions are difficult.

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Obviously, the headlines seem to be about the money; however, a more-pressing issue is health and safety. I’d look forward to announcements to be made over the next week.