Pittsburgh Penguins left winger Zach Aston-Reese was given credit for a game-winning goal, Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings. The only problem was Aston-Reese didn’t touch the puck. The goal should have been credited to 12-year veteran and Penguins assistant captain Kris Letang.
So, what was the rookie Aston-Reese’s response to being given the goal? It was to tease the veteran Letang, of course.
The Penguins room is welcoming of new guys, both rookies and youngsters. The new guys can chirp players who helped build the foundation for Stanley Cup success. Or at least that’s what it seems like?
“To a degree,” laughed Aston-Reese to Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “You don’t want to overstep any boundaries, of course, but it is nice where you feel comfortable. You can have fun like that or say stuff like that.”
The following day, Letang was given credit for the goal. Aston-Reese likely got back some of that teasing and loved every moment of it.
The tone of the organization seems to be set at the top of the food chain. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby makes an effort to welcome all new players. From Jamie Oleksiak to Dominik Simon, new players and young players always mention being greeted by Crosby.
“You want to make guys feel comfortable. That’s different things for different guys, but the bottom line is to make them feel a part of it,” Crosby told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “For young guys coming in, it’s a big step playing in the NHL. There’s a lot of things on their mind. But, if they can be comfortable with that situation and just focus on playing, and be comfortable in the environment, that helps everything.”
Crosby’s on-ice contributions generally help, too. He assisted on Aston-Reese’s first two NHL goals last Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators.
Earlier this season, Crosby could be seen on the bench teaching Simon and Daniel Sprong the finer points of the game with an iPad. That’s leadership, which breeds success.
The Path to the NHL
Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old undrafted rookie from Northeastern University, is a late bloomer. At 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, Aston-Reese has only average NHL size but makes the most it. Last season, he was the NCAA leading scorer with 63 points (31g, 32a) in 38 games. However, his path to the show wasn’t always that easy.
Aston-Reese played three seasons in the USHL, the United States’ premier junior hockey league, with the Lincoln (Neb.) Stars. When he was 16, he also appeared a lower-tier league, the Atlantic Junior Hockey League, for 25 games.
He played three seasons with the USHL’s Stars. His best was as a 19-year-old, when he scored just 30 points (9g, 21a) in 60 games.
In 2013, Aston-Reese was undrafted. Passed over. And like many players who don’t get the call, Aston-Reese took advantage of common-sense NCAA hockey eligibility rules which allow junior players four years of NCAA eligibility.
Aston-Reese upped his production in each season at Northeastern, from 19 points in his freshman year to the 63-point breakout as a senior. Because he remained undrafted, Aston-Reese was able to sign anywhere following the conclusion of his senior season.
Late last season, he signed with the Penguins organization. Aston-Reese had eight points (3g, 5a) in 10 AHL games. Jim Rutherford immediately compared him to the Penguins’ resident havoc-creator, Patric Hornqvist.
Saturday night in his seventh game, ZAR scored his third NHL goal … again. This one won’t be taken away. He went in a straight line to the net and buried an Ian Cole rebound with a nifty flip to his backhand.
Never Too High, Never Too Low
The sign hangs on the wall of the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins dressing room: “Never Too High. Never Too Low”. That fits with Aston-Reese’s personality. The Penguins called up the mellow Aston-Reese on Feb. 3, when they were in New Jersey.
“The second day I was here, we had the team Super Bowl party,” he said. “Right from that moment on, everything has been tight.”
Aston-Reese started slow. He was goalless in his first four games, and often appeared tentative or to lack the urgency of other young players who are desperate to stay in the NHL. Aston-Reese didn’t get his first point until his third game, but his ice time steadily increased.
Other players like Sprong have come up but eventually, are sent down when the initial adrenaline wore off, and their play declined. Aston-Reese has been the opposite. His game has incrementally improved.
“That’s not my motivator — not to get sent back down. It’s fun playing hockey up here. It’s a great team, everyone has been so welcoming and made this feel like a family,” he said. “They have two Cups in two years, so they know what they’re doing.”
The Penguins do have two Cups in two years and have done it by developing young players from the collegiate ranks, like the undrafted Conor Sheary (Umass-Amherst), 2013 third-round selection Jake Guentzel (Nebraska-Omaha), and the unheralded 2010 third-round selection Bryan Rust (Notre Dame).
Perhaps Aston-Reese will add himself to that list very soon.