Black Aces arrive in Anaheim

By Tanya Lyon

With the Anaheim Ducks headed to their franchise-first, fourth-straight playoff appearance, the team has called up some reinforcements from their AHL affiliate, the Iowa Chops.  This taxi squad of players otherwise known as the Black Aces is comprised of some the organization’s top prospects including centers Petri Kontiola, Petteri Wirtanen, left wings Josh Green, Matt Beleskey, defensemen Brian Salcido and Brett Festerling, and goaltender Jean-Philippe Levasseur.

This is just the third time since the 2003-04 season that the Ducks have opted to carry a taxi squad through the playoffs and judging by the past, this could bode well for the Ducks playoff hopes.  That’s because both the 2003-04 and the 2006-07 taxi squads were around to witness the Ducks first and second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.  And while that may be pure coincidence, there is no denying that the Ducks taxi squads have helped them develop some players who are now regulars on their roster including former Duck Chris Kunitz (a member of the 2003-04 taxi squad who is now playing on a line with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh) and forwards Drew Miller and Ryan Carter who are both regulars on the Anaheim roster.  Needless to say, the Ducks feel the added exposure and playing time their taxi squad provides works.

“It’s imperative for some of the younger players to get a taste of what [the NHL playoffs are] like,” said Ducks Head Coach Randy Carlyle.  “The intensity that’s going to be displayed in the arena and in the building, the amount of preparation, what takes place on a day-to-day basis. They’re going to be dressing and they’re going to be around and if you recall we’ve tapped into those black aces on more than one occasion…so it’s not like they’re people that are not thought of –they’re always in reserve and they’re available.”

The chance to play and participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs after toiling for most of the season in the AHL isn’t as far fetched as you might think.  Two seasons ago, the Ducks used three players from their taxi squad in the Stanley Cup Finals.  All three of those players, Ryan Carter, Drew Miller and Joe Motzko, won the right to spend the summer with Stanley and have their names forever engraved on the silver chalice — a fact that isn’t lost on this current group of players. 

“None of us want to see a guy get hurt,” said Festerling, a Black Ace. “but hockey is a rough sport and if that happens then we’ve got to be ready to go and jump in the line-up and put forward the best effort possible."

The key according to Carter, a player from the Ducks last taxi squad and now an NHL regular, is to be ready for anything.

“I think when you’re out there you get exposure,” said Carter. “The coach gets to see you and what you can bring to the table.  At the same time the intensity level goes up.  Guys are putting their bodies on the line night in and night out and injuries happen and you have a limited roster.  So injuries happen and…what do they say when preparation meets opportunity that’s kind of what it’s all about.  They’re getting an opportunity to be ready to play here and if their number gets called then it’s good for them and hopefully they’re ready.”

And the Ducks are doing everything they can to make sure this group of Black Aces are ready if their number does get called.  While the squad are not expected to travel with the team, they will be kept very busy. They will practice with the team when Anaheim is home and will also undergo rigorous off-ice training under the supervision on Iowa Assistant Coach Matt Laatsch and Ducks Strength and Conditioning Coach Sean Skahan.  The goal and the expectation being that these players will be ready if the need arises but also understand what their off season conditioning program should look like.

And as for what these players were told to expect? 

“Expect the unexpected, basically,” said Matt Beleskey laughing.

“[Try to] get to know the guys, get to know the systems, the practices, what they’re working on.  It’s mostly a learning experience especially for young guys like me. You come here you see what other guys do and try to learn and pick up things that guys like Pronger or a Getzlaf will do before [a game] and how they prepare.”

And should an Anaheim player go down, two of the Black Aces have significant NHL experience under their belt, namely Festerling who spent 40 games with the Ducks this season and journeyman Josh Green who has 322 NHL games under his belt.  Festerling provides the Ducks with some added depth on defense.

Levasseur is also getting added experience filling in for goaltenders Jonas Hiller and JS Giguere during practice.  The added experience of facing NHL-caliber players on a daily basis as well as the opportunity to earn more time with the Ducks renowned goaltending consultant Francois Allaire will no doubt fast track Levasseur’s development. 

But regardless of their NHL experience or lack of it, Carlyle admitted that all seven of these players will be under the microscope.

“I think it’s still a test. I think it’s important that they come and they’re going to be put under the microscope — they’re practice habits, what’s going to take place off the ice and that’s why they’re really all here.  It’s a learning curve on what’s going to take place and it’s going to be a step in their development.”