For the first time since former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on March 14, 2017, Zach Aston-Reese has not secured a spot on an NHL roster heading into the season.
Instead, he will try to earn a deal at Maple Leafs development camp later this month on the first professional tryout (PTO) contract of his career.
Will Aston-Reese make on the Maple Leafs this season, or will he return to free agency?
Either way, will he finally skate a full season as a full-time NHL player— or will he slip back into the fringe role he played for five and a half years with the Penguins?
We have signed forward Zach Aston-Reese to a professional tryout (PTO) contract. pic.twitter.com/5CO81MNKOH— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 9, 2022
Aston-Reese played about 55% of his five full seasons with the Penguins, or 213 games out a potential 384.
Some of that missed time was due to injury, including a shoulder surgery which kept him off the roster for six months in 2020-21. Aston-Reese also faced periodic healthy scratches throughout his career, rarely claiming a fully secure roster spot.
Aston-Reese’s time in Pittsburgh ended with a trade to the Anaheim Ducks halfway through last season. After the Ducks let him walk as a UFA at the end of his one-year contract in 2021-22, he will now be fighting for a roster spot during Maple Leafs training camp.
JFresh called ZAR “infamous for his combination of consistently elite defensive metrics and non-existent puck skills.” In 2019-20, Aston-Reese ranked first among all NHL forwards in lowest expected goals against per 60 minutes, meaning he all but smothered the opposition’s scoring attempts when he was on the ice— even if he did not often rack up many chances of his own for the Penguins.
The Maple Leafs have signed Zach Aston-Reese to a PTO. pic.twitter.com/vtpSNbbw4d— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) September 9, 2022
So, how likely is it Aston-Reese will make it from a PTO to the Maple Leafs 2022-23 roster?
According to John MacKinnon of The Win Column, the number of successful PTO contracts in the NHL varies by season (with 2016-17 as a wild outlier), but most players who successfully win a contract earn it with the team they are trying out with in the preseason. Last season, 11 out of 31 PTO candidates earned contracts.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are facing a lot of questions about who will skate in their bottom six, and Aston-Reese’s extensive experience with the Penguins— which includes 23 valuable postseason appearances— could make him an appealing option.
He made $1.725 million with a one-year arbitration contract with the Penguins last season, and he’ll need closer to league minimum to find a spot on a crowded Maple Leafs roster. But if Aston-Reese agrees to a pay cut, he could very well earn his next professional contract in Toronto.
If not, he will return to free agency and search for a bottom-six spot on a less crowded NHL roster.
You’ve watched him play for years, so it’s time for you to chime in. What do you think— will we, and should we, see Aston-Reese as a full-time player in the NHL next season?