The Toronto Maple Leafs have just two pre-season games remaining until their opening night fixture against the Montreal Canadiens, and Zach Aston-Reese deserves to be on the roster officially by then.
The 2022-23 campaign will see the Toronto Maple Leafs deploy a fairly new-look bottom six on offence, with plenty of departures and new arrivals during the off-season. The team is keen to push their way beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and the personnel further down the depth chart could have a big impact on that success.
Players were handed contracts early in free agency, seemingly guaranteeing them a chance at making the Leafs’ opening night roster, but it is one of the two PTOs handed out that is arguably most deserving after impressing in pre-season along with what he could offer the team across the coming year.
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Zach Aston-Reese may not be a particularly big name around the NHL, but he certainly has a reputation as a physical bottom-six forward that could give the Leafs exactly what they need to support the team’s top talent. Playing the majority of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Staten Island, New York native has developed into a strong defensive forward who provides plenty of sandpaper that teams typically covet.
Last season, the Leafs relied on veteran Wayne Simmonds to be that physical presence that warded off opposing players and put in the big hits needed across the ice. Simmonds did this well, throwing a team-leading 148 hits in 72 games.
By comparison, Aston-Reese, who played 69 games with the Penguins and Anaheim Ducks, threw an astonishing 231. Add to that his 42 blocks and his positive takeaways to giveaways (19 to 10) and it’s clear that the Leafs have a player readily available to them that could carry the physical load. Aston-Reese also contributed 15 points (five goals, 10 assists), coming close to Simmonds’ 16 (5 goals, 11 assists) all the while being six years younger, with much more longevity remaining in his career.
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Since coming to Leafs camp, the 28-year-old has impressed. In two preseason games, he has a goal and has thrown five hits, demonstrating his patented physicality with his 6-foot, 204lbs frame. Throughout his career, he has started in the defensive zone 69.5% of the time and even earned himself some Selke Trophy votes in 2019-20, coming 25th in total voting that season.
The Leafs have been figuring out their identity further down the line-up and one thing that appears to be on head coach Sheldon Keefe’s mind is the idea of a shutdown line that can go up against the top lines of opposing teams and prevent them from having as many chances as they may normally have. With Aston-Reese, the Leafs look like they have the perfect situation for that, with David Kämpf and off-season acquisition and Stanley Cup champion Nicolas Aubé-Kubel.
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The trio together has shown tenacity, physicality, and the defensive traits that can make them extremely valuable pieces to a team desperate to prove they are genuine cup contenders. With how the team could look with those three together, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Aston-Reese will sign a deal with the team at least by the end of pre-season.
But how will the Leafs accommodate him under the cap? As has been spoken about before, the Leafs have an extremely tight cap situation this season and will need to make some very tough decisions about placing players on waivers and sent down to the Toronto Marlies in order to free up cap space. LTIR is another option, should it be necessary, that could open up space but some serious decisions loom for general manager Kyle Dubas.
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If Aston-Reese accepts a deal below $1 million, that would be a bargain for a player who will offer some genuinely physical defence-first attributes and provide the team with something that could be the difference between another first round exit or not. Whatever happens to fit him into the roster, Zach Aston-Reese being an official member of the Toronto Maple Leafs is something the team needs to make a reality.
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