After five seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and a short stint with the Anaheim Ducks, forward Zach Aston-Reese has signed a professional tryout (PTO) deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
An undrafted player from Staten Island, New York, Aston-Reese was originally signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017 after a standout senior year with Northeastern University. He finished the season with 63 points in 38 games as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award for the top NCAA hockey player.
Related: 2022 NHL Free Agent Tracker
In 2021-22, he had 11 points in 52 games with the Penguins before they traded him along with Dominik Simon to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Rickard Rakell. The latter just signed a six-year contract extension with the Penguins, while Aston-Reese went on to record four points in 17 games with the Ducks before testing free agency.
Throughout 230 NHL games, Aston-Reese has 32 goals and 60 points. He was on pace for 15 goals through a full 82-game season back in 2020-21, and while it would be a stretch to expect more offense than 5-10 goals and 15-20 points from him, his defensive skill makes up for his lack of offense.
Aston-Reese Played Key Defensive Role for Penguins & Ducks
The former Lincoln Star forward isn’t much of an offensive player, his career high in points is 17 back in 2018-19, but he’s elite defensively, and that’s what teams will be bringing him in for.
In 2021-22, he had the highest team-on-ice-save percentage among forwards who played at least 20 games with .944, meaning that when he was on the ice, his goalie was typically making saves. He also had 67.9% of his zone starts in the defensive zone compared to only 32.1% in the offensive zone and had the fourth-highest average penalty kill time-on-ice among forwards on his team.
He’s a relentless forechecker and can play short-handed really well. Also, with his versatility and ability to play the wing and centre, he’s a great bottom-six forward for any playoff-contending team.
Aston-Reese Has a Good Chance to Make Opening Night Roster
PTOs can really go either way for teams, as it typically hinges entirely on the player’s performance in training camp. But in this case, Aston-Reese will have a better opportunity than most to seal a spot in the Maple Leafs’ bottom six. The Maple Leafs have been looking to shape the identity of their bottom six and fill it with energy players, as shown by the signings of Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Calle Jarnkrok, and the former Penguin fits the identity in question here.
With most of the fourth line being up for grabs, Aston-Reese will mostly be competing against the likes of Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford for the last roster spot. The Maple Leafs will likely give a fair shot out of camp to both Aube-Kubel and Adam Gaudette, and while Simmonds and Clifford both bring an element that the Maple Leafs could use, their foot speed might hurt their chances at locking down a spot in the bottom six.
Aston-Reese would give their bottom six an energy boost and has the size to keep up with the physical aspect of the game, standing at 6-foot and 204 pounds. If he impresses in training camp, there’s a good chance the tryout contract will become an NHL contract before the season starts.
Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.