COLUMBUS, Ohio — Less than a year ago, Zach Aston-Reese was in Nationwide Arena trying to shake off the aftereffects of a broken jaw he suffered during the 2018 playoffs at the hands (or shoulder) of Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson.
So Aston-Reese tried a rehabilitation method few oral surgeons would recommend.
He attempted to fight Blue Jackets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois in a meaningless preseason game.
Aston-Reese’s reasoning in pursuing a brawl was to see if he was truly back from the injury and if he could perform one of the tasks occasionally demanded of a rambunctious power forward.
Dubois declined the fight last September. Fifty-one weeks later, Aston-Reese was back in Columbus and didn’t experience any such dustups during a ho-hum 3-1 loss Saturday. He logged 19 minuttes, 12 seconds of ice time on 23 shifts, including 2:17 on the penalty kill. He also recorded three shots.
After starting last season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton due to salary cap restraints, Aston-Reese was summoned to the NHL club in November and appeared in 43 games while scoring 17 points (eight goals, nine assists). Those totals might have been higher were it not for the 13 games he missed due to a broken hand he suffered in a fight with Florida Panthers forward Colton Scevior on Jan. 8. Or the additional 13 games he missed at the end of the regular season due to an undisclosed ailment.
“His whole time (with the Penguins) has been interrupted by injuries,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “So we’re hoping that we can keep him healthy. But he’s also got to play the game a certain way to be effective. Which means he’s got to do a lot of the thankless jobs. He’s got to block shots. He’s got to take hits to make plays. He’s got to bring a physical element to his game.”
Aston-Reese realizes he must play with a physical edge if he’s to carve out a regular existence as an NHLer. He also acknowledges there are times where avoiding some contact — fights specifically — will allow him to play the next game.
“There definitely is a balance,” Aston-Reese said. “For me … I don’t know. It’s just been bad-luck injuries.
“Might just be a curse.”
The Penguins didn’t seem concerned about evil spirits potentially plaguing Aston-Reese and re-signed him to a two-year contract this past offseason. The contract offered a slight pay raise at $1 million per season but most importantly, it’s a one-way deal and will all but ensure Aston-Reese begins the season at the NHL level for the first time.
“That’s something I’m excited for,” he said. “Being able to start the season here and being part of the team from
Day 1, I think it’s going to be a little bit different. I’m just excited to help this team wherever they slot me in.”
In order to stay in the lineup for the entire season (or for as many games as a possible for a power forward), Aston-Reese changed up his offseason regimen.
“I moved up to Toronto this summer and I trained with Andy O’Brien (the Penguins’ director of sports science) and was just around a lot of other NHL guys,” he said. “That’s a good place to be for hockey from training and treatment and taking care of your body.”
With September drawing to a close, Aston-Reese figures to begin the regular season on the fourth line with Teddy Blueger at center. The two were occasionally linemates in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“Obviously, he’s had some good stretches,” Blueger said. “And when you get hurt, it takes you out of your rhythm a little bit. The longer you’re out, the harder it is to get back to that game shape, to get the feel of the game back. He’s a great player, he’s shown that already. But he can have a really good year if he stays healthy.”
When the Penguins signed Aston-Reese as an undrafted free agent from Northeastern University in March 2017, general manager Jim Rutherford suggested he was similar to Patric Hornqvist. To date, Aston-Reese has not yet lived up to that lofty comparison. But those hopes haven’t been abandoned.
“One of the things we like about Zach is he’s brave,” Sullivan said. “He plays a courageous game. He’s not afraid to go into traffic. There’s inherent risk in that. Hopefully, this year we can keep him healthy because it’s been my experience in watching him over the last couple of years, every time he seems to get a little bit of traction, his game starts to get to another level, it gets interrupted with an injury and he gets set back.
“We’re hoping he can stay healthy this year. We think he’s a good player.”