Head coach Mike Sullivan found a little secret early in this NHL season. Sullivan paired three players together and found their whole was greater than the sum of their parts when he paired Teddy Blueger with Brandon Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese. The Pittsburgh Penguins stumbled upon something they could rely upon and a rock-ribbed line capable of taking the puck from the opponent’s top lines.
Even as injuries forced Sullivan to juggle the lines, and ineffectiveness forced more juggling, the Aston-Reese–Blueger–Tanev trio remained intact. And they remained effective.
It could be Brandon Tanev’s energy. Teddy Blueger’s speed and tenacity. But the secret sauce has been Aston-Reese. The numbers with and without Aston-Reese are striking.
As a trio, the line has a slightly above average 51.15% Corsi, which means they attempt slightly more shots than their opponents. They also garnered 56% of the scoring chances and 57% of the high-danger scoring chances.
Now, bear in mind this line was often matched against the top lines of Pittsburgh Penguins opponents. Making this line’s task even more complicated, they rarely get to start in the offensive zone. The Blueger line began 74% of their shifts in the defensive zone or neutral zone.
So, the line begins in a bad spot and ends in a good place. That territorial twist puts the puck on Sidney Crosby’s, or Evgeni Malkin’s stick in the offensive zone. So, how important is a line that battles top lines (so, Crosby doesn’t always have to expend the energy to do so) and puts the team in an offensive posture?
All stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com and their fabulous line tool.
But there is one twist. Without Aston-Reese, the equation fails. The line with a different left wing was no longer greater than the sum of its parts. The line didn’t equally match opponents.
Nope. Without Aston-Reese, the Blueger-Tanev combo was well underwater.
Without the sometimes subtle, but physical corner work and all-round game of Aston-Reese, the line had a slightly higher Corsi (53%) but had far less scoring chances than their opponents (45%), and even less high-danger opportunities (42%). They scored three goals but allowed eight while taking 40% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone.
The line played over 200 minutes without ZAR, so it’s not a small sample size.
With Aston-Reese, the above numbers hold, and the line scored 10 goals, and yielded only 10 goals, despite the disparity in competition. They did so in 422 minutes of 5v5 ice time.
But the baseline numbers may not show the significance. This season, Aston-Reese has only 13 points (6g, 7a) in 57 games. Those are paltry numbers, and Aston-Reese would be the first to admit he has more scoring punch.
If your head is spinning from the numbers, the quick recap is this: Without Aston-Reese, the line started many more shifts in the offensive zone, but proportionally gave up more goals and far more scoring chances.
We’ve talked with Aston-Reese a few times this season. Actually, he’s one of our favorites to pull up a stool (figuratively) and have a chat. Sometimes it’s not even about hockey, like the time we asked him to re-design the Penguins logo because of all the injuries (and darn it, I buried that little nugget in a bigger story, but can’t find it now).
We’ve chatted about New York City pizza joints and him joining the media when he’s all done on the ice. For the record, he wants no part of this side of the business. This summer, Aston-Reese worked out in Toronto with Penguins Director of Sports Science Andy O’Brien. But Aston-Reese can also get frustrated, too.
Aston-Reese definitely has more offensive to give. However, the player can sometimes get trapped in roles, and singularly focused on the primary task at the expense of more. The bulky Aston-Reese has far more to give than six goals, but he’s also helping his team win without them.
The 25-year-old formerly undrafted free agent hasn’t had an easy go. He has fought expectations and labels from the beginning of his college hockey career. And sometimes, it seems he’s still fighting them, internally.
With Aston-Reese, the Blueger line is significantly better, and opponents are significantly less effective. The puck is on Crosby’s stick more often in good spaces.
And those are all good things. Who knew? Aston-Reese is a big part of the Pittsburgh Penguins secret sauce.