The Pittsburgh Penguins are giving their young players a full accounting in the 2018 training camp. Prospect Daniel Sprong drew the cherry assignment on Sidney Crosby’s right wing, and rookie Zach Aston-Reese has drawn the equally plum assignment of the left wing beside Evgeni Malkin. From the seeds of opportunity, the Penguins are clearly giving the youngsters an immediate opportunity to bear fruit.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now spoke with Aston-Reese Saturday after his second training camp scrimmage (full video below). The coaches have not specifically told Aston-Reese he could crack the lineup or that he could do so in a high-profile role, but the inference is clear. Aston-Reese has a chance to make the lineup, in a big way.
“Nothing was said. It’s more actions than words,” said Aston-Reese. “They’re giving me an opportunity based on last year. It’s a good opportunity.”
Aston-Reese is one of two forwards without an NHL contract with a legitimate shot to crack the Penguins roster. He and big-forward Jimmy Hayes, who has 334 NHL games experience, are battling to force the Penguins to keep 14 forwards and a full 23-man roster. Or, displace one of the 13 forwards with an NHL contract.
Aston-Reese is aware of the Penguins depth and how close the competition is to make the roster, “Yeah, a little bit,” he understated. “It’s tough to look at it from that side. Everyone is good guys in here. We’re all friends.”
However, Aston-Reese has clearly glanced at the depth chart and knows his competition, “The guys they re-signed, (Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon) we’re pretty close. We’re all competing for spots. It’s something everyone is aware of.”
“It’s better to have the mindset that you’re on the bubble,” he said.
Aston-Reese may have also learned an important lesson from his NHL experience, last season. In addition to keeping his head up when Tom Wilson is on the ice, Aston-Reese is hoping to play a faster game. That means less stopping and starting, which he says is more commonplace in the college ranks, and more tight turns to maintain and generate speed.
“You watch a guy like Guentzel, he plays with speed. He always seems to find open ice. (I learned) things like that.”
Last season, Aston-Reese played 16 regular season games and nine playoff games, including his final game which was cut short by the vicious head shot from Wilson. His best stretch came just a few games after getting the big call-up. In February, Aston-Reese scored six points (4g, 2a) in eight games before suffering an upper-body injury which kept him out of the lineup for over a month.
The Staten-Island native returned in late March, but was scoreless in his final six regular season games and had only one assist in nine playoff games. He is listed at 6-foot-tall and 204 pounds but he looks a bit slimmer to start this camp. After Wilson broke his jaw and concussed him, Aston-Reese was off solid foods until mid-August. Though we can debate if Chipotle counts as solid food…
It’s clear the Penguins are opening the door wide to their future. The team is giving Aston-Reese and Sprong a golden opportunity for top-six ice time despite a roster full of veterans on NHL contracts.. And so far, Aston-Reese is eating that up, too.
Follow Dan Kingerski on Twitter: @thedankingerski