Zach Aston-Reese was one of the more prized college free agents in recent memory when he came out of Northeastern University at the conclusion of the 2016-17 college season, with nearly half of the league pursuing him. The forward ultimately chose to sign a two-year, entry-level deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins beginning the following season, which also allowed him to make his professional debut with the AHL’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Penguins that year. After a brief, yet impressive 10-game stint in the AHL where he posted eight points, Aston-Reese came back and impressed once again with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, earning the opportunity to crack the NHL for the first time in 2017-18.
In his first NHL season, Aston-Reese had four goals and a pair of assists in 16 games, a solid performance which was made all the better by his ability to play a physical game, contribute in dirty areas, and contribute on the penalty kill. All of that lead to Aston-Reese playing in 10 of Pittsburgh’s 12 playoff games that year as well. The following season, Aston-Reese would spend a little more time in the AHL before establishing himself as a regular on the NHL roster. In three seasons, the power-forward registered 45 points, 23 goals and 22 assists, over 145 regular season games, bringing along his gritty and responsible style of play with his offensive output.
This season was more of the same for Aston-Reese, who had two goals and nine assists in 52 games for the Penguins leading into the trade deadline. Somewhat of a salary cap casualty, Aston-Reese was included in the package that helped Pittsburgh bring back forward Rickard Rakell from the Anaheim Ducks. Now on an Anaheim team that had had its struggles and traded away several roster players at the deadline, Aston-Reese was able to slide into the lineup immediately and have an impact. Though he didn’t show many signs of improvement over the player he had been for his career thus far, the forward brought more of the same to the Ducks, tallying four points, three of which were goals, in 17 games, that included fairly regular penalty kill time.
At the conclusion of the season, Aston-Reese was set to hit the UFA market and the still-rebuilding Ducks chose to let him walk, as the franchise sought to overhaul its group to an extent. In the nearly month-and-a-half since free agency has begun, many players have signed, but some solid NHL talent still remains waiting for a new opportunity, Aston-Reese included.
2021-22: 69 GP, 5-10-15, +9 rating, 28 PIMs, 78 shots, 231 hits, 13:02 ATOI
Career: 230 GP, 32-34-66, + 39 rating, 99 PIMs, 351 shots, 655 hits, 13:42 ATOI
This late in the offseason, players still on the market generally can’t afford to be too picky with the opportunities they receive, and the same might be true for Aston-Reese. However, the forward should be expected to gather some interest from teams who could offer him either a two-way contract or a PTO. Out of those offers, the 28-year-old is likely to look for one where he has the best chance of finding regular ice time. Aston-Reese’s responsible, physical, and high-energy game is one that may not jump off the page statistically and could be hard to understand from just watching a little here and there, or of course, just playing a little here and there. His game is one that shines through, somewhat quietly, by playing night in and night out. Thus, an opportunity on a team that can get him in the lineup on a nightly basis may be the best situation.
One team that sticks out as a solid fit is the Staten Island native’s hometown team – the New York Rangers. Right now, the Rangers boast a talented group of players both up front and on the blueline, however with a bottom-six that would project to include Sammy Blais, Filip Chytil, Julien Gauthier, Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt, and Ryan Reaves, there could be opportunities for Aston-Reese to crack the lineup. In all likelihood, he would be competing with Rangers prospects like Will Cuylle, Vitali Kravtsov, and Brennan Othmann for a roster spot and playing time, but his experience and style of play could be a strong fit for a younger team that is already building it’s bottom-six with a similar style of player.
Other options for the veteran winger likely include rebuilding teams who prefer to keep established NHLers in the lineup rather than rush their prospects, such as the Chicago Blackhawks or Arizona Coyotes. Aston-Reese may also be able to find an opportunity with a competitive team who values his experience and energy, looking to have him as a budget option to compete for ice-time along with their less experienced players who the team prefers to let develop, rather than play in especially important games. A team like the Colorado Avalanche stand out as an example.
This late into free agency, Aston-Reese’s options are likely limited to a two-way deal or a PTO. If he’s offered a one-way contract, it’s highly unlikely that will be for any more than the league-minimum of $750K. A PTO may be the best-case scenario for Aston-Reese, which would give him a chance to highlight his play, which becomes more apparent the more consistently it’s seen. The PTO would give him a chance to find an opportunity with that team, or if not, perhaps with another team that has the chance to evaluate his tryout from afar. An especially strong showing may also vault Aston-Reese into the territory of a guaranteed one-way contract, potentially for even more than the league-minimum.
Some of my fellow Penguins fans bad mouth ZAR because he forgot how to score over the years, but our 4th line is worse without him. Looking around the league at some of the players due regular duty, I find it baffling that ZAR isn’t one of them. He’s certainly not a top 9, but you could do worse on your 4th line.
I liked his play in Anaheim last season, but I’m not GM Pat Verbeek. Ducks are going to miss his physical play.
dave frost nhlpa
NYR for sure in on this.
He’ll get more playing time with Devils and the Devils need his grit (bottom dwellers in hits) and PK ability.
They need to trade Johnsson & Tatar’s expiring contracts and move Wood to 3rd line, as he makes too much $ to be a 4th line LW; opening up a roster spot for Aston Reese.