Zach Aston-Reese: Back with the Maple Leafs or gone in 2023-24?

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
10 months ago
It had to wait until training camp due to some cap kinks that needed to be worked out. But the Maple Leafs had their eye on Zach Aston-Reese in free agency, and when September rolled around and he was still without a contract, they signed him to a professional tryout deal, followed by a one-year contract just north of $840,000.
Formerly a Hobey Baker candidate in his NCAA playing days, Aston-Reese’s game shifted once he got to the NHL, and he turned into precisely the type of player he was in Toronto this year. A bottom six forward with limited offense, but a strong forecheck game, good physicality, and resilience in front of the net. He had never eclipsed more than 20 points in a single season, so offense is not what he was brought in for.
Aston-Reese actually scored double digit goals on the fourth line, setting a new career high with ten markers on the season. That said, he only managed four assists that whole time, capping him at a measly 14 points in 77 games. But, again, he wasn’t brought in to be a star playmaker. And he held up his end of the bargain on the physical side of the game, finishing the season with 163 hits, more than any other Leaf who spent the whole season with the team.
There wasn’t much to report on about the Staten Island native, but one particular hilarious storyline was the timing of his goals. Out of his ten, eight were scored on a TSN broadcast. One has to wonder where ZAR would have been on the scoresheet had the Leafs played every game on TSN broadcasts. Could the Maple Leafs have had the second coming of Wayne Gretzky on their team? Could they have won the Cup? I guess we’ll never know.
Anyway, on a serious note, for as fine as he was this season, I doubt the Maple Leafs bring him back next year.

Projected cap hit: Somewhere under $1 million

The Maple Leafs COULD afford to bring Aston-Reese back. The money isn’t an issue here. What is an issue, however, is the sheer amount of players who do pretty much exactly what he does available in free agency. They gave him pretty consistent fourth line minutes throughout the regular season, but as soon as Matthew Knies joined the equation, his time on ice dropped drastically.
The Maple Leafs’ supporting cast next season will likely feature some new faces, and unless Aston-Reese is okay with being a part-time veteran player, I can’t imagine he comes back to Toronto. They have a bunch of players who could push for full-time jobs in training camp including Alex Steeves, Bobby McMann, and Pontus Holmberg among others. They might want to sign a veteran to do what he did this season, but I can’t imagine he will be a specific target. He was fine at his job, didn’t really underachieve or overachieve, and the reality is that in today’s NHL, these types of players are recycled far more often than not. Is it possible he returns to Toronto? Yeah. But I’d hold off on ordering any Aston-Reese jerseys for the time being.

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