It’s go time for Zach Aston-Reese. Last season, the Staten-Island native and legacy Pittsburgh Penguins fan showed flashes of top-six potential, aplomb for being a shutdown forward, and learned to drop the mitts when necessary. Yet Aston-Reese is still an unproven commodity who did not get a contract until he and his agent sat down for his arbitration hearing in late July.
He signed for two years and $1 million per season, which brought a smile of happiness and relief to the ZAR camp.
The 6-foot, 204-pound Aston-Reese scored 17 points (8g, 9a) in 43 games after getting called up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in November. Initially, he displaced struggling Daniel Sprong from the lineup and helped to create the brick wall fourth line with Matt Cullen and Riley Sheahan. The trio not only successful penalty killers, but Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan began to use them extensively against the opposition’s top line.
They succeeded, and they even outscored the opposition (3-0) in their limited time together (57 minutes at 5v5). It was an impressive line (all stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com)
Aston-Reese earned quickly earned promotion to Evgeni Malkin’s left side. In 11 games from Dec. 12 to Jan. 6, Aston-Reese scored eight points (4g, 4a). Unfortunately for all involved, Aston-Reese also added fighting to his game. After Aston-Reese pummeled Florida Panthers forward Colton Sceviour, the Florida opponent fell on Aston-Reese’s hand.
Aston-Reese missed five weeks just as he was coming into his own. Again.
Upon his return, he shuffled around the lineup, yet scored six points (2g, 4a) before suffering a lower body injury in early March. The injury kept him off the ice until the playoffs, but he wasn’t 100%, and he joined his teammates in struggling against the relentless New York Islanders.
Aston-Reese also had 138 hits and was a +12 in just 43 games, too.
Pittsburgh Penguins Need: Stay Healthy
Aston-Reese was one of the leading scorers in the nation in his senior year at Northeastern University. The undrafted free agent emerged in his junior season and exploded his final year. Injuries beset his first two years in college, too.
His camp hopes that is the same trajectory which his NHL career follows. There is some empirical evidence to suggest it could happen, too. There’s also the cautionary tale of Beau Bennett, the former Penguins first round pick who has like a walking game of Operation.
Aston-Reese has struggled to stay on the ice. From being illegally trucked by Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson in the 2018 Round Two series, to suffering a broken hand in a fight, to his most recent lower body injury, Aston-Reese has not yet been able to play 40 consecutive games. Some bad luck, some intentional infliction and a little hockey have combined to leave a question mark at the end of Zach Aston-Reese’s potential.
This summer, Aston-Reese has trained in Toronto with other NHL players and Penguins Director of Sports Science Andy O’Brien. Sources told PHN earlier this summer it was an attempt to physically reshape Aston-Reese, who already plays a hard game in the dirty areas.
Prediction: The Pittsburgh Penguins need for scoring after trading Phil Kessel and signing Brandon Tanev should create ample opportunity for Aston-Reese to establish himself–wherever he is meant to play. He played both wings last season and did not look out of place on either, and he added offense, too. So, whether he claims the left or right side beside Malkin, or a fourth-line wing, the opportunity is his.
PHN is bullish on his chances to be much more than a fourth-liner. With a little luck and health, Aston-Reese has 20-goal potential. Given the Penguins luxury of pluggers, he could be elevated by default, too. Training camp will show if he increased his first-step burst, or added more muscle to dominate the low scoring zones. We’re going to guess yes, on both.
18 goals. 25 assists. 225 hits. Perhaps an audition or two a the net-front presence on the Penguins second PP unit.
We’ll place our bets on Aston-Reese rather than against, but we don’t have to hedge as the Penguins did.