Two years ago, Zach Aston-Reese smiled broadly. The then-restricted free agent was relieved that he didn’t have to go through a bruising arbitration battle and happy that he was about to sign a two-year, $2 million deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Aston-Reese is again an RFA.
Two years ago, the Penguins took Aston-Reese to the limit for a new contract. Aston-Reese was already seated for the arbitration hearing when the Penguins substituted a contract for an argument. The Penguins got a good AAV and the player got term.
Aston-Reese, 26, built on his contract by earning Selke Award votes with teammate Brandon Tanev. According to metrics guru Micah Blake McCurdy, Aston-Reese was statistically the best defensive forward in the NHL in 2019-20.
This season, despite the shortened COVID schedule, the Penguins forward popped a career-high nine goals.
As part of the Penguins grind line with center Teddy Blueger and winger Brandon Tanev, Aston-Reese formed a line that became an integral part of the Penguins game plan. Until the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Jeff Carter at the NHL trade deadline, the line was the Penguins third line. After the deadline, they dropped to their previous fourth-line spot.
The extra minutes and extra need for offense spurred the line to achieve career-highs, each member of the line achieved a career milestone in various categories.
Defensively, they often skated against the opponents’ top line and won those battles. Their shots and scoring chances were below 50%, in part because of the quality of competition, but also because the line only took 20% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone.
Those are hard minutes.
Because of injuries throughout the Penguins lineup, the trio only played 17 games together (140 minutes) but they did not give up a goal. ZERO. They scored six.
Now–I’m highlighting the trio’s success because it’s uniquely important. When one member of the line was not present, the numbers dropped.
Without Tanev, Aston-Reese and Blueger were outscored 10-8 in 208 minutes.
Without Aston-Reese, Blueger and Tanev were outscored 5-2 in 93 minutes.
Interestingly, Aston-Reese played 94 minutes without Blueger and Tanev. His advanced stats were pretty good. He was in the red with shots and scoring chances, but well in the black with goals (5-3), and had an expected-goals for of 7.05. That’s about double the expected goals for the Blueger line and triple the number when the line was missing one member.
All stats courtesy of the Line Tool at Natural Stat Trick.
He had a nagging shoulder injury cleaned up in the offseaosn and his skating was markedly improved in 2020-21. He did a no-carb diet in the offseason and was leaner and quicker this season.
I’ll repeat what I’ve quietly said for a couple of years–Aston-Reese has more to give. His biggest limitations are himself and shrinking to an assigned role.
So what is Aston-Reese worth to the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Herein lies another very difficult question because his worth, the market and the situation will collide with a bang. The Penguins need only offer Aston-Reese $1 million to keep his rights. That is a move they will likely make.
Aston-Reese is worth we’ll more to the Penguins than $1 million per season. He’s worth well more as an unrestricted free agent, too.
This season, Aston-Reese scored 15 points (9-6-15). He is one of the Penguins top penalty killers. His nine-goal output is akin to a 16 goals in an 82-game season.
Generally, a 15-goal player who received Selke votes is worth around $3 million on the open market.
But the RFA status, a flat salary cap, and the Penguins inability to waste a few hundred thousand to make a player happy combine to create a situation in which Aston-Reese will have to accept a contract in the $2 million range or go through arbitration to get a bit more.
This time, the player may stand his ground and go through a soulless three-hour arbitration hearing, hear all of his negatives and why he’s not worth the money he wants, just to get a below market raise.
In this case, it could mean a 200% raise if he goes through with it.
That could also force the Pittsburgh Penguins hand. Realistically, if a team feels it could be priced out of the market by an arbitration award, not offering a QO (qualifying offer) is a possibility.
The team loses exclusive rights on July 28 (July 1 in normal seasons), but can re-sign the player to any deal to which the parties agree. It seems that’s a real possibility that will be heavily influenced by Aston-Reese’s salary ask.
Insiders suggest he’s worth about $2.25 million. In a normal time, he would probably start at $2 million. But these aren’t normal times and the Penguins salary cap situation is murky.
What is he worth? That answer is–what he will accept.
The cap, the market, and reality collide.