Zach Aston Reese was one of the most desirable college free agents in recent memory, coming off Northeastern University at the end of the 2016-17 college season and with nearly half the league chasing him. The forward eventually settled on a two-year entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins beginning the following season, which also allowed him to make his professional debut that year with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Penguins of the AHL. After a brief but impressive 10-game stint in the AHL in which he scored eight points, Aston-Reese returned and impressed again with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and earned the opportunity to win the NHL for the first time in 2017-18 crack .
In his debut NHL season, Aston-Reese had four goals and two assists in 16 games, a solid performance made even better by his ability to play a physical game, put his foot down in dirty areas and contribute to penalty shootouts. All of this led to Aston-Reese playing in 10 of Pittsburgh’s 12 playoff games that year as well. The following season, Aston-Reese spent some more time in the AHL before establishing himself as a regular in the NHL. In three seasons, the power forward recorded 45 points, 23 goals and 22 assists in over 145 regular-season games, and brought his bold and responsible style of play to bear with his offensive performance.
This season was similar for Aston-Reese, who had two goals and nine assists in 52 games for the Penguins before the close. Aston-Reese was something of a pay-cap victim and was included in the package that helped Pittsburgh move back ahead Rickard Rackel by the Anaheim Ducks. Now on an Anaheim team that was struggling and making deadline-day trades in several roster players, Aston-Reese was able to slide straight into the lineup and make an impact. Though he hasn’t shown many signs of improvement from the player he’d been in his career so far, the forward brought the Ducks more of a match, recording four points, three of which were regular penalties, in 17 games, including fair.
At the end of the season, Aston-Reese was set to enter the UFA market and the fledgling Ducks let him go as the franchise attempted to overtake its group to some extent. Many players have signed in the nearly month and a half since free agency began, but some solid NHL talent is still waiting for a new opportunity, including Aston-Reese.
2021-22: 69 GP, 5-10-15, +9 rating, 28 PIMs, 78 shots, 231 hits, 13:02 ATOI
Career: 230 GP, 32-34-66, +39 rating, 99 PIMs, 351 shots, 655 hits, 13:42 ATOI
This late in the offseason, players who are still in the market generally can’t afford to be overly picky about the opportunities they’re given, and the same could be true for Aston-Reese. However, the forward can be expected to attract some interest from teams who could offer him either a two-way contract or a PTO. Of those offerings, the 28-year-old will likely seek one where he has the best chance of finding Ice Age on a regular basis. Aston-Reese’s responsible, physical and energetic game is one that statistically doesn’t jump off the page and is difficult to understand by just watching a little here and there or, of course, just playing a little here and there. His game is one that lets something faint through by playing night after night. Therefore, an opportunity on a team that can put him in the lineup every night can be the best situation.
One team that is proving to be a solid addition is the Staten Island native’s hometown team – the New York Rangers. At the moment, Rangers have a talented group of players both up front and down the blue line, but with a bottom six likely to be among them Sammy Blais, Philip Chytil, Julien Gauthier, Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Huntand Ryan Reaves, there could be opportunities for Aston-Reese to crack the lineup. In all likelihood he would compete with Rangers prospects like Will Cuylle, Vitaly Kravtsovand Brennan Othman for one roster spot and one season, but his experience and playstyle could be a good fit for a younger team already building their bottom six with a similar playing style.
Other options for the veteran winger are likely to be rebuilding teams that prefer to keep established NHLers in the roster rather than rushing their prospects, like the Chicago Blackhawks or Arizona Coyotes. Aston-Reese can also potentially find an opportunity with a competitive team that values his experience and energy and are looking for him as a budget option to battle for Ice Age alongside his lesser-experienced players who the team prefers to develop. instead of playing in particularly important games. A team like the Colorado Avalanche stands out as an example.
This late in free agency, Aston-Reese’s options are likely limited to a two-way deal or a PTO. If he’s offered a one-way contract, it’s highly unlikely it’ll be for more than the league minimum of $750,000. A PTO could be the best scenario for Aston-Reese, which would give him a chance to highlight his game, which becomes more apparent the more consistently it’s seen. The PTO would give him a chance to find a chance with that team, or if not, maybe another team that has a chance to remotely assess his tryout. A particularly strong performance can also catapult Aston-Reese into guaranteed one-way contract territory, possibly even for more than the league minimum.