Aston-Reese Can Crack Maple Leafs’ Opening Night Roster

After a month or so without any news aside from blank updates on Rasmus Sandin’s contract negotiations, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced the signing of forward Zach Aston-Reese to a professional tryout (PTO). The signing comes after Sportsnet senior columnist Mark Spector tweeted that the former Pittsburgh Penguin had interest in the Maple Leafs as a destination as well as the Edmonton Oilers.

The Maple Leafs made a flurry of depth signings for their forward group including Calle Jarnkrok, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, and Adam Gaudette in the opening days of free agency this summer, and the addition of Aston-Reese to the training camp roster marks the first external free agent signing they have made since. PTOs happen every year, and they have had success with them in the past, as Mason Raymond turned his tryout into a 45-point season in 2013-14. Then, on the other hand, you’ve got players like Nikita Gusev, who they signed last year and opted not to sign to a contract.

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Aston-Reese is one of the better players the Maple Leafs have signed to a PTO in recent years, and he will come into training camp with a good opportunity to not only earn himself a contract but make the opening night roster as well.

NCAA Star Turned Bottom Six Energy Forward

Despite going undrafted through his three years of eligibility, Aston-Reese put together four solid seasons with Northeastern University and progressively got better each year. His best season, unsurprisingly, was his final year with the team in 2016-17, where he scored 31 goals to go along with 63 points in 38 games, tying him for the league lead in scoring.

That performance earned him a number of accolades, including a nomination for the Hobey Baker Award as the league’s most outstanding player, as well as the Hockey East Player of the Year honours, and nominations to multiple all-star teams throughout the NCAA. His play earned him a two-year entry-level contract with the Penguins in March 2017, and he made his debut with the team the following season. 

Zach Aston-Reese Anaheim Ducks
Zach Aston-Reese, Anaheim Ducks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Looking at the trajectory of Aston-Reese’s pro career, it’s clear that he’s not the offensive juggernaut that he was in college. But with or without the offense, it’s the other areas of his game that have kept him employed since entering the league. He finished the season with 15 points in 69 games split between the Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks, who traded for him at the deadline in 2021-22. 

Last season, Aston-Reese played 1:31 per game shorthanded, which would have been good for fourth among Maple Leafs forwards behind only David Kampf (2:29), Mitch Marner (1:59), and Alex Kerfoot (1:43). With the team losing two pieces of their penalty kill in Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase (1:23 and 1:15 per game shorthanded respectively) in free agency, he would likely be a valuable addition just for his penalty killing alone.

Aston-Reese Has Good Odds to Crack Opening Night Roster 

With the additions of forwards like Jarnkrok, Aube-Kubel, and Gaudette, it’s clear that the Maple Leafs are looking to shape a new identity for their bottom six, and Aston-Reese fits in with his fellow additions perfectly. In terms of competition for the job, I can’t see Gaudette or Aube-Kubel as scratches for the opening night lineup barring a dreadful training camp. So, players in the battle for the final fourth line job include Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford, along with members of the Toronto Marlies looking for a full-time job such as Joey Anderson, Nick Abruzzese, and Pontus Holmberg. 

The issue with scratching Simmonds or Clifford is that they both bring an element of toughness that every team needs. But, unfortunately, that isn’t enough to justify regular minutes for either of them. Aston-Reese has a solid frame at 6-foot and 204 pounds and has been known to energize any line he’s playing on with his physicality and forechecking ability. Factor in his penalty kill value, and playing him in favour of the former two seems to be a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, it would take an exceptional training camp from one of the younger players from the Marlies to beat out the players with NHL experience for a job. Long term, it may be better for players like Abruzzese and Holmberg to be playing regular minutes in the American Hockey League (AHL) rather than having them play every other game in the NHL and serve as a 13th or 14th forward.

Aston-Reese Would Fit New Bottom Six Identity

Having said that, nothing is guaranteed until training camp wraps up. I know I’m stating the obvious here, but Aston-Reese has to earn a contract before people can start talking about penciling him into the lineup. But as long as he makes himself useful in training camp, I don’t see why he won’t come out of camp without putting pen to paper. He fits the identity the Maple Leafs need out of their bottom six, and would be a clear improvement to the depth they have right now.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Aston-Reese is a former college teammate of the aforementioned Gaudette. Could there be some chemistry on the fourth line there? Who knows? Either way, Maple Leafs fans should warm up to the idea of the former as a fourth-line player for them this season. Since he’s on a PTO, I’d imagine he wouldn’t ask for more than $1 million per season. Unless he’s noticeably a step behind the play at training camp, it wouldn’t at all be shocking to see the Maple Leafs sign him to a contract.

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