As the Pittsburgh Penguins begin to gear up in a few weeks here for the 2019-20 season, one of the more interesting players to keep an eye on will be a guy they just made a moderate investment in this summer in forward Zach Aston-Reese. As he told NHL.com:
“A two-year, one-way (contract), a lot more is going to be expected of me,” Aston-Reese said. “I think a lot more is going to be expected from the bottom-six players. We brought in Brandon Tanev, having Teddy Blueger as our center, they’re going to look to us to step up. With the locker room being a little bit different, I think there’s a lot of room for growth for us.”
Aston-Reese is in a very interesting position. He’s sort of become a poor man’s Chris Kunitz as a support winger who can throw his body around and do some dirty work and play on a variety of different lines up and down the roster. Aston-Reese hasn’t demonstrated a lot of the very under-rated in-zone passing and vision that Kunitz capitalized on over the years, but he’s a sturdy forward that is willing to go to the net, and good things happen when going to the net.
Unfortunately for Aston-Reese, injuries have marred his first two professional seasons, limiting him to only 59 total NHL games (to go along with 52 AHL games). ZAR knows and admits that much, but has been healthy and able to train hard for the upcoming year.
“Just from diet to doing treatment beyond working out,” Aston-Reese said. “I’ve been on the ice since June so being in that environment. The biggest thing for me is getting a little bit faster and fixing my body. I’ve had a lot of tough injuries. Being able to stay healthy has been my biggest issue.”
The left side of the Pens’ roster will be one of the more interesting spots to watch this fall. Jake Guentzel, of course, is the top option there — but he’s also capable of flipping to the right side if necessary. Jared McCann has played on the left wing, and that is the position where the Pens’ coaches prefer Aston-Reese as well. There’s also Dominik Simon and Brandon Tanev in the mix as well, both of whom have played on the left. Dominik Kahun also played largely on the wing in Chicago last season as well, though he has positional flexibility in addition to many of the others.
All of those options leave a lot open for Mike Sullivan, and if you know anything about Sullivan, he’s likely to try all the different combinations possible over the season as he rotates the hot hand up the lineup, usually to play a role player in spurts with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin if they can handle it.
It’s only August, but right now the sky seems the limit for what Aston-Reese’s role might evolve into. Great to see him healthy, and now armed with a two-year contract, he’s ready to roll. The item that went unacknowledged in Aston-Reese’s comments, but what surely must not be too far from the top of his mind is that he doesn’t play for a patient team. The Pens traded or waived seven players from their 23-man opening night lineup in the course of the season last year. Surely deep down ZAR must know if he isn’t meeting expectations or hitting his stride, he could end up like Jamie Oleksiak or Daniel Sprong or Riley Sheahan or Carl Hagelin or any number of other teammates last year that ended up somewhere else.
So avoiding injury if possible and maximizing his opportunities will be not only needed, but perhaps critical to stay a part of the team. Pittsburgh will be looking for a player to step up and earn a big role. We’ll see if that’s McCann or Kahun or Aston-Reese, but there will definitely be an important spot for one of those young support players to grow into.