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2018-19 Penguins’ Season in Review: Zach Aston-Reese

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It was a season full of stops and starts for the young Pens’ forward

NHL: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Vitals

Player: Zach Aston-Reese

Born: August 10, 1994

Birthplace: Staten Island, NY, USA

Shoots: Left

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 204 pounds

Draft: undrafted free agent signing, PIT

Contract status: RESTRICTED FREE AGENT this summer. Finished a two-year entry level contract in 2018-19 that carried a $832,500 base salary (and performance bonuses making it a $925,000 cap hit)

The past: For Aston-Reese’s first taste of NHL action of 25 games in 2017-18, 65% of Pensburgh readers graded him out as a B.

Regular Season History

Not a big history here, as Aston-Reese was technically still an NHL rookie in official status for 2018-19 as a player with less than 25 career regular season games. One item that stands out is Aston-Reese’s 3.2 hits/game led the Penguins this season, impressive considering he was only playing 13:38 per game. Showing a willingness to get out there and throw the body around and also get in shooting lanes (ZAR’s 0.9 blocked shots/game tied for tops among all Pittsburgh forwards) is a nice trait for a bottom-six winger to have.

Fancier Stats

Nothing popping out, he’s not controlling play but not getting totally buried either as a seldom used player. The number that matters most to Aston-Reese is probably his /60 rates - being as the more he scores the more likely he is to get more shifts and better opportunities. Time and again we’ve seen players like Bryan Rust start on the fourth line, flash and get better chances. That will really be the key for ZAR, who is a player not without skill in his hands and has shown the ability to be a productive player at lower levels of hockey.

To that end, Aston-Reese finished 5th among forwards with 1.82 Points/60 at 5v5, behind only the team’s very best players (Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel). That’s a good way to get noticed and get a bigger role. That hasn’t happened yet, as his total overall 5v5 TOI/game was 13th on the team, making it easier to pop a big rate based number when the number is small.

Still, impressive and definitely making a case to get more shifts and better linemates.

Monthly split

(via Yahoo!)

After basically becoming an NHL regular down the stretch in 2017-18, Aston-Reese had a fairly unimpressive preseason (and remember Aston-Reese was dealing with a broken jaw last summer). That combined with full health up front plus summer roster additions of Matt Cullen, Derek Grant and Daniel Sprong (who couldn’t be waived) left ZAR holding the short straw and sent to Wilkes-Barre for the beginning of the season. He dealt with the disappointing demotion well scoring nine points (6 goals + 3 assists) in 11 games in the AHL and getting promoted back to the show for good.

Aston-Reese didn’t really get off to a great start in the NHL in November, but was finding his stride as the calendar was turning. From December 29th to January 6th, in a five game stretch ZAR scored four points. He was finding his way up until January 8th’s game against Florida. ZAR crushed a Panther with a clean open ice hit, and of course was challenged to a fight immediately. Aston-Reese accepted and won the fight, soundly beating up Colton Sceviour. The problem was ZAR broke his hand in the process and be out until February 13th.

ZAR was back for a little bit, then suffered another injury on March 10th that kept him out until Game 1 of the playoffs on April 10th.

All those stops and starts made for a fairly unsatisfactory feeling at the end of the season.

Game of the Season

Looking back, December 14th’s 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins was a major season turning point for the Pens. Entering the night, the Pens had a record of just 12-10-6, good for only 22nd place in the NHL. Aston-Reese was a shot-in-the-arm in this game, scoring three points and providing a lot of the muscle needed. Including this game the Pens would finish 31-15-6 the rest of the way (6th best in the league from this point on). Was this an obvious “save the season with a big win” game or obviously pivotal moment? No, not really, but looking back it was a clear turning point from when the club stopped floundering and started to get it into gear.

Here’s the recap of the game and what we wrote about it that night:

Penguins vs. Bruins Highlights: Zach Aston-Reese’s 3 point night helps Pittsburgh to win

Zach Aston-Reese was an interesting choice for Malkin-Kessel third wheel, but at this point what did they have to lose and who else was there to use on the left side there? Aston-Reese brought some energy and dished out 4 hits in the first period alone, several of them big impactful ones. Not sure if the two skilled vets took anything tangibly from it, but it was nice to see something added to their other wing.

If it didn’t benefit the big dogs, it sure did benefit ZAR to have such a great game. It was only goals #3 and #4 and assist #3 on the season for him so seeing a bit more consistency and continuation of the production will be needed, but a terrific game for the youngster.

Playoffs

Much like the rest of his team there wasn’t much to make of the playoffs. 14 hits is nice and on brand for an energy player like Aston-Reese to try and inject some passion into the game, but he didn’t get much going just like practically all of his teammates.

Charts

(via hockeyviz)

Overall role and general data

Pretty reasonable lower line stuff for Aston-Reese.

About the most telling thing about Aston-Reese is the white lines in the third chart that represent all the starts and stops ZAR has had to deal with due to injury. The best ability is availability and that’s frankly been an issue for him due to various different injuries that have kept him out of the lineup.

While Aston-Reese has had experience at basically all three forward positions at one point or another, word from the coaching staff has seemed to emerge as ZAR being a left winger in their eyes. He played on this strong side almost exclusively this season, and that’s represented from where the majority of his shots came from.

Usage by game

Some interesting usage, Aston-Reese started the season on a fourth line with Garrett Wilson and Matt Cullen but was moved up to play with skilled players like Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard pretty quickly. Then upon return from injury and down the stretch he got a key slot with Kessel and Evgeni Malkin. ZAR only played 11 ES minutes a night (compared to 13-15 for the stars) so he wasn’t their exclusive LW, but he definitely got a long look there.

That’s a pretty impressive chart for a supporting type of winger.

5v5 Unblocked Shots (for then against)

Videos

In hindsight, this would be a punch better off never thrown..

Penalty killer

From that key game against the Bruins on December 14th, Aston-Reese played 1:40 per game of short-handed time, third most among Pens’ forwards (behind only Bryan Rust and Matt Cullen). Aston-Reese did well here too, his 5.44 GA/60 while 4v5 was second best among regular Pens’ PKing forwards. So if nothing else you have a physical winger who can handle some PK minutes well and pitch in pretty well offensively, painting a pretty good complete picture of a solid season, if only not for those darn injuries.

Ideal 2019-20

What’s a best case scenario for Aston-Reese next year? He’ll probably be signing a one or two year deal to really prove himself, and ideally he would do just that and prove a lot. In his stature and playing style Aston-Reese is a bit reminiscent of another undrafted forward from Pens’ history in Chris Kunitz. Aston-Reese becoming that really good “third wheel” or supporting passenger to star players on a scoring line, while able to provide production himself would be the ultimate best case. Maybe a stat line of about 20+ goals and 40+ points on the high-end projection for next season while being a physical force and key member of the PK.

Realistic 2019-20

Probably more like this year, bouncing between a fourth line plugger’s role with low TOI and a penalty killing role. A couple of abbreviated looks on a scoring line that doesn’t end up sticking, and more injuries that limit his availability. And a season line of about 10-12 goals and 25-30ish points in about 60 games due to the time missed with injury.

Worst case 2019-20

Gets type-cast as a fourth liner if he goes cold and doesn’t produce much. Long periods of the season missed with serious injuries that leave his future in Pittsburgh questionable, if not traded away from the quick dealing of GM Jim Rutherford, ends up with single digit goals and games played below 50 due to injuries.

Discussion

As a 24-year old rookie, the clock is ticking for Aston-Reese to really establish himself a niche at the NHL level. He played well enough and outlasted some of his competition on the roster this year (namely Sprong and Grant, whose presence kept ZAR from the opening night NHL roster). What do you expect to see out of him next year? Can he become an established top-nine winger? Does a guy with 11 career NHL assists in 59 games have the playmaking chops to keep up with skill players? Or is he better served being a high-end fourth line player with upside?

Grade

Poll

Grade Zach Aston-Reese’s 2018-19 season

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A
    (6 votes)
  • 38%
    B
    (151 votes)
  • 54%
    C
    (215 votes)
  • 4%
    D
    (16 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (3 votes)
391 votes total Vote Now