Zach Aston-Reese has laid claim to an NHL roster spot but he may be a casualty of Daniel Sprong’s development.
Aston-Reese, the stocky 205-pound rookie winger, who can play both left and right wing, has not had an exceptional training camp but played well enough last season when recalled from the WBS Penguins. Aston-Reese was a lineup fixture when healthy which continued into the playoffs. He played ahead of Sprong, who was also available but the Penguins are out of time to develop Sprong anywhere but the NHL roster.
Last weekend, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan deflected a question from Pittsburgh Hockey Now regarding how much single performances could enhance or submarine a player’s chances to make the roster. “We look at the entire body of work,” was part of Sullivan’s reply.
Aston-Reese scored six points (4g, 2a) in 16 games last season, though he had just one assist in nine playoff games. This season, Aston-Reese has improved his speed without sacrificing much bulk, which in itself was a feat because he could not eat solid foods until mid-August. He infamously suffered a broken jaw and concussion from an illegal hit by Washington forward Tom Wilson.
But Sprong is a different case. At 21, the word “potential” still applies and the Penguins desperately want to develop the potential they see in Sprong. Players don’t usually develop with a healthy dose of press box nachos and so Sprong must play. And that means Aston-Reese would sit.
The Penguins option is to keep forward Derek Grant on the NHL roster and send Aston-Reese to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton where Aston-Reese can play every night. Aston-Reese has outplayed Grant in camp and would otherwise win the battle but larger issues are in play. In addition to Sprong’s development, the Penguins may look at Grant’s salary.
Grant, 28, signed a one-year, $650,000 contract in July. Last season with Anaheim, the 6-foot-3, 215 pound forward played both center and left wing. He subbed for multiple injured centers and posted career numbers in goals (12) and assists (12).
One factor which won’t affect the decision is the salary cap. According to the 2013 CBA, the Penguins would not be hit with a cap penalty if they send Grant to the AHL because he is making the league minimum. Teams may save the league minimum plus $375,000 when they send an NHL contract to the AHL, and Grant falls within those parameters. While the Penguins would not suffer cap penalties, they would eat Grant’s salary unless another team claimed Grant of off waivers.
If Aston-Reese is sent down to WBS, it may not be for long. If Sprong struggles, Aston-Reese can play right wing and if the Penguins need to sit Sprong for a game or many, Aston-Reese is the best solution on the fourth line right side. And, Aston-Reese may be a better solution on the Penguins fourth-line right wing than Sprong, but the Penguins won’t cross that bridge until Sprong forces their hand.
Wednesday, Sprong made a couple of glaring mistakes in the first period, including a neutral zone turnover and failing to remain the high forward on a defensive pinch in the offensive zone but PHN spoke with hockey professionals who otherwise gave him good marks.
However, it should be noted head coach Mike Sulivan specifically left the fourth line right-wing spot open Wednesday when asked about Sprong. Sullivan deferred to “any of young players” including Dominik Simon, Sprong or Aston-Reese. While Sullivan cautions against inferring too much from media answers, it was a conspicuous sidestep to a softball question.
If the Penguins decide Aston-Reese is the 13th forward and Sprong will get the lineup spot as a matter of development, Aston-Reese would be best served with playing time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Press box time wouldn’t stunt Grant’s game, though it may make him regret signing in Pittsburgh.
It may not be a unanimous decision as General Manager Jim Rutherford is known to be a Sprong believer while the coaches have been more tepid. The Penguins have until Tuesday at 5 p.m. to make their decision.