The Maple Leafs have signed forward Zach Aston-Reese (ZAR) to a Professional Tryout Contract, the club announced on Friday.
ZAR, 28 years old as of last month, has played 230 regular season games (32 goals, 66 points) as well as 23 playoff games (one goal, four points) in the NHL. He’s listed at 6’0 and a little over 200 pounds, but he’s one of the more physical players in the league – among NHL forwards, he was 11th in hits last season; over the last three seasons combined, he ranks 18th in total hits.
Clearly visible in the numbers, he doesn’t score much, but he’s good at getting in on the forecheck, which plays into the main identity of his game as a checking forward.
For a few seasons now, ZAR has also ranked as one of the better defensive forwards in the entire league.
Zach aston-reese (leafs pto) is the kind of one-dimensional player who is so good at his one dimension that most teams would benefit from having him, maybe all 32 teams. pic.twitter.com/Z912e1iBwi
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) September 9, 2022
In the past three years, Zach Aston-Reese's impact on preventing scoring chances (RAPM xGA) ranks 2nd (!) among all Fs.
ZAR also consistently played top opposition in PIT, with difficult shift start deployment.
It's a no-brainer to target him as a PTO option over Nash/Virtanen. pic.twitter.com/qXzqyvyEJ8
— Sid (@NHL_Sid) September 9, 2022
He doesn’t score much – he’s never recorded a double-digit season in goals – but he hits, plays defense, and is now trying to make a team that was second in the league in goals per game last season. He can play either wing, and while he has taken faceoffs at times in his checking role, he’s a career 37 percent on the dot.
ZAR is a fairly similar player to summer signing Nicolas Aube-Kubel; if the coaching staff were to play the two together, the fit would be obvious on a checking line that hits a ton, doesn’t score basically at all, and can take good shifts against top lines, freeing up the Leafs top players to take advantage of weaker matchups.
Where this fit would be potentially very interesting is if Nicholas Robertson can emerge as a legitimate scorer at the NHL level this season. That would give the Leafs the opportunity to run one of the best lines in the league, a scoring line, a two-way line, and a checking line.
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Robertson – Tavares – Nylander
Engvall – Kerfoot – Jarnkrok
(though you could argue any of the three above can play center)
NAK – Kampf – ZAR
It would be a small addition (should ZAR earn an actual contract in camp) and not the kind of move that would turn heads, but it’s the type of signing that could create roster flexibility and additional (potentially exciting) possibilities. The Matthews line is firmly one of the best in the league, and if the Leafs have a fourth line that they can competently trust against any opposition, the Leafs can mix and match lines two and three as they see fit until they find the optimal setup. If the fourth line can’t be trusted with much responsibility, it adds to the burden on the two lines above them.
Interestingly, for such a strong defensive forward, ZAR has not prominently featured on the penalty kill. Over his last 1.5 seasons (primarily with Pittsburgh), he did average over a minute there, but among Penguins forwards, he ranked seventh in shorthanded time on ice per game. The Leafs will have to replace Ilya Mikheyev and even Ondrej Kase’s shorthanded minutes, which will be no small task. ZAR could help take some of those minutes, but he hasn’t necessarily been a workhorse shorthanded over the years.
All in all, this is a PTO signing, so there is zero risk, only reward. ZAR is at a good age, has proven himself in the league, and if he comes to camp ready to earn a contract, it’s easy to envision a clear fit and benefit to adding him to the roster.