Penguins winger Zach Aston-Reese tells a story from early – really early – in his athletic career. It doesn’t exactly portend a career as a pro athlete, and it makes his propensity to play a net-front game remarkable.
“I played T-ball as a little kid for, like, a month, and then I couldn’t do it anymore because of that hand-eye coordination,” Aston-Reese told Pittsburgh Hockey Now during a post-practice interview Thursday in Cranberry.
Now all grown up at 23, the rookie has developed that hand-eye coordination and a style of game that puts him in the mold of Penguins teammate Patric Hornqvist and former Penguins winger Chris Kunitz.
Aston-Reese has been a nice addition since he was recalled from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, with four goals, one assist and 26 hits in eight games playing heavily in a top-six role.
Aston-Reese, Hornqvist and Kunitz differ in personality, but they share a willingness to play in front of an opponent’s net, where they set screens, look for deflection and doorstep goals, take abuse from defenders and make goalies’ blood pressure rise.
Sometimes that applies to the Penguins goalies, too.
“They’re all similar,” Matt Murray said of the three. “(Hornqvist) is a bit more unique than the rest of them just because he’s the exact same in practice as he is in games. He’s in your kitchen. He’s battling on rebounds. Obviously, his personality is a big part of that. He’s so intense and he’s so high-energy. That’s what makes him so good.”
Could He Be Odd Man Out?
Hornqvist has missed the past eight games because of a lower-body injury. He returned to practice Thursday, wearing a non-contact jersey at first, then ditching that for a regular black jersey after 15 minutes and skating in his normal spot alongside Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin. Coach Mike Sullivan expressed optimism that Hornqvist is close to returning.
That and what could be an imminent return by injured winger Tom Kuhnhackl might not be great news for Aston-Reese, who got demoted to the fourth line at practice. It’s possible Aston-Reese could be an odd man out when the Penguins are back to full strength.
“When we have a full complement of players and everyone’s healthy, the coaching staff has some real difficult decisions to make,” Sullivan said.
Still, Aston-Reese has shown what he’s made of and would seem to have a bright future. Just don’t ask him to put himself quite on the same level as Hornqvist and Kunitz (now with Tampa Bay) just yet.
“Those names are thrown around a lot, especially Kunitz being a college free agent, having success,” said Aston-Reese, also an undrafted college guy. He played at Northeastern.
“But it’s hard to compare (myself) to those guys. Kunitz scored the game-winner against Ottawa in double OT, and then Hornqvist the game-winner (against Nashville) for the Stanley Cup. You try to play within your own abilities, but I do like to see what those guys do because they are hard to play against and they’ve made a living in that area and been able to score goals in tight. So you pick up on some of their tendencies and definitely try to replicate that.”
Aston-Reese might be closer to Kunitz – a straight-line skater with a physical edge – than Hornqvist.
“I think I’m more of a north-south player,” Aston-Reese said. “I’ve never been the fastest, so I’m not like a shifty guy. You’ve just got to get there.”
He hasn’t made as many enemies as Hornqvist.
“I think a lot of goalies really don’t like (Hornqvist),” Murray said. “That in and of itself – they see his name on the lineup sheet, they know he’s coming. He’s good at what he does, and he embraces that role.”
Finally On the Ice Together
Aston-Reese enjoyed watching Hornqvist in practice Thursday, the first time he got to do that because Hornqvist’s injury absence has exactly overlapped Aston-Reese’s first eight NHL games. Murray applauds Aston-Reese’s aim to be like Hornqvist.
“Absolutely,” Murray said, adding that Hornqvist’s value extends to being able to slot in on different lines, block shots, play on the top power play and battle defensively.
“For any guy who’s coming up and may not be a blue chip – a first overall type of prospect – if you play like Patric you know you’re going to have a good, long career like he has. For a guy like Zach, I think that’s a great guy to learn from.”
Aston-Reese said he gravitated toward that role as a junior and senior in college. He has developed those skills along with the thick skin that style of game requires.
“You’ve got to be able to take a beating,” he said of the net-front gauntlet. “It’s all part of the game. That’s kind of been my job the past couple of years. It’s something I take pride in.”