Zach Aston-Reese made it to the NHL in first pro season after being an undrafted free agent from Northeastern. The Staten Island native with Pittsburgh roots is no stranger to beating the odds or excelling. When the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp begins Friday, Aston-Reese will have another improbable battle to play in the NHL. Instead of proving he is ready for the rigors of the big league, Aston-Reese will have the more onerous task to out-perform players on NHL contracts who are not waiver eligible.
The Penguins already have 13 forwards with NHL-only contracts, but Aston-Reese is not one of them. To make the NHL roster Aston-Reese will need to convince the Penguins to keep 14 forwards and a full 23-man roster. Or he must displace a player the Penguins would risk losing by passing through waivers.
It’s Aston-Reese against a full lineup.
Making Aston-Reese’s job even more difficult, the Penguins added more players with size and physicality. At the end of last season, Aston-Reese was one of the few Penguins who brought jam or physicality in the lineup. This offseason, the Penguins added physical defenseman Jack Johnson and large forward Derek Grant, so Aston-Reese will not earn a sweater simply by being the only physical forward in the bottom-six.
The Penguins also signed large forward Jimmy Hayes to a two-way contract. Hayes will have the same battle as Aston-Reese, but Hayes has 334 career NHL games. At 28-years-old, 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, the Penguins won’t have to worry about stunting Hayes growth if he makes the NHL club but is a frequent healthy scratch. The same could not be said for Aston-Reese, 24, who played in just 16 NHL games.
Aston-Reese is 6-foot tall and 204 pounds. His stocky frame and physical play gave the Penguins a needed ingredient last season. However, both he and Hayes can play right wing, which could net either NHL ice time if Penguins winger Daniel Sprong does not have a good training camp. Sprong is the low hanging fruit for the forwards those trying to make the team. If Aston-Reese can put separation between himself and Sprong, he could force the Penguins into an awkward decision.
But Aston-Reese has to create a distinct advantage for the Penguins. This summer, Sprong signed a two-year contract annually worth $750,000. Sprong is one of the 13 Penguins forwards with an NHL deal, and he is no longer waiver exempt. In other words, for Aston-Reese to win the fight against Sprong, Grant, or any other NHL contract forward, the fight will have to end in a knockout. Close calls will go the player the Penguins would lose, such as Sprong.
Last season, Aston-Reese played 16 NHL games. He was called up on Feb. 3 but suffered an upper body a few weeks later. He had six points (4g, 2a) in the eight games before his injury. He returned for the final five games of the season but was scoreless. His regular season stat line was 16 games played, six points (4g, 2a). Of course, Aston-Reese’s playoff run was cut short by a vicious hit from Tom Wilson which left Aston-Reese concussed and with a broken jaw. Wilson was suspended for three games, and Aston-Reese was off solid foods for several weeks.
Aston-Reese’s ice time had climbed to over 16 minutes per game before his upper body injury in February. After he returned and in the playoffs, his ice time rose and fell. He played as little as 6:40 and as much as 13:39 in his nine playoff appearances. His strengths are the ability and willingness to crash the net and work on the wall. His greatest weakness is still his skating ability which lacks explosiveness and speed.
He will have a chance to show improvements in training camp. In preseason media scrums, Aston-Reese said the Wilson hit did not significantly delay his off-season training but if it reduced the time he could work on skating his climb will be even steeper.
PHN projects Aston-Reese to begin the season with the WBS Penguins, but he will be loudly knocking on the door and if others slip, Aston-Reese could force the Penguins to sacrifice an NHL-only contract to add him to the lineup. Training camp and the battle begins on Friday.