Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal, avoiding arbitration
Zach Aston-Reese’s original plans for Monday morning included sitting in a meeting room in Toronto and listening to his employer talk about all the things he isn’t good at.
He is awfully glad plans changed.
Aston-Reese agreed to a new two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, minutes before his scheduled arbitration hearing was set to begin. The deal will pay him $1 million annually.
“It’s a crazy process,” Aston-Reese said. “I guess it’s a little bit awkward. I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began. You hear stories and things like that. It’s no coincidence that, what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was really relieved to avoid that.”
If the deal hadn’t been reached, the Penguins, wanting to keep the player for the smallest salary cap hit possible, would have told an arbitrator all the things he does wrong.
Instead, the team issued a press release announcing his new contract and talking about all the things Aston-Reese does right.
“Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said in that release. “He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”
Aston-Reese has shown some promise in two NHL seasons, but he also has missed significant time with injuries. In 59 career games with the Penguins, he has 12 goals and 23 points. He earned an average salary of $925,000 on his two-year, entry level deal.
He is spending much of this summer working with Penguins strength coach Andy O’Brien and a collection of top NHL players in Toronto.
His no-nonsense style of play should fit in with the philosophy the Penguins adopted this summer — trading away talented winger Phil Kessel and signing bruising free-agent forward Brandon Tanev, for instance — in an effort to be harder to play against.
“I think if you look at some of the moves, bringing in Tanev brings another physical element, just adding more depth and guys that maybe won’t be as risky offensively,” Aston-Reese said. “You look at the Islanders in that first series against us. Other than that first line, it wasn’t anything crazy offensively. They just made a big commitment to checking and to playing solid defense.
“I think we’re kind of taking note of that. I think with a lot of the moves we’ve made, just on paper, it’s a big difference.”
With Aston-Reese under contract, the Penguins are in a tight salary cap situation with one restricted free agent, defenseman Marcus Pettersson, left to sign.
They are about $500,000 under the $81.5 million cap with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies on the roster.
Theoretically, they could try to squeeze under the cap without trading a roster player. They could waive a depth defenseman — Chad Ruhwedel, for example — and attempt to sign Pettersson to a bargain-basement, one-year contract worth a little over $1 million that would keep them under the limit with 22 players on the roster.
A more likely scenario would see the Penguins try to sign Pettersson, a promising 23-year-old, to a longer, more lucrative contract, then move a veteran player to free up cap space. Given the size of their contracts and place on the depth chart, defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and forwards Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad are the most logical candidates to be cap casualties. All make between $3.25 and $4.1 million annually.
Last year, 40 of 44 cases headed to arbitration league wide were settled before a hearing occurred. Since Rutherford took over as Penguins general manager in 2014, five players have had arbitration hearings scheduled, and all were avoided.
Aston-Reese’s case was reminiscent of Nick Spaling’s in 2014 and Brian Dumoulin’s in ‘17. The team and players agreed to new contracts hours before their hearings were set to begin.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .