Just over a week remains until the opening of NHL free agency and the Pittsburgh Penguins have multiple holes in their lineup. While the team could rely on their young prospects to step up, a return of a former fourth line stalwart could help round out the forward core.
Aston-Reese played five seasons with the Penguins before being traded as part of the package that brought Rickard Rakell to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last season.
He will become an unrestricted free agent next week after playing on a one-year contract with a salary cap hit of $1.725 million. If the Penguins find themselves searching through the bargain bin, Aston-Reese could be a cheap option to fill out the bottom six.
The 27-year-old forward found a home on the Penguin's bottom line, next to center Teddy Blueger, that often became a go-to shutdown unit for head coach Mike Sullivan.
In his time with the Penguins, Aston-Reese became known as a defensive specialist, spending a lot of time possessing the puck and pinning opposing teams in their defensive zone. According to Natural Stat Trick, Aston-Reese had a 49.58 Corsi percentage while starting 66.26 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Another area that Aston-Reese could help the Penguins is on the penalty kill. Along with being a dependable even-strength defender, Aston-Reese was one of the team's most reliable penalty killers. He, along with Blueger, made up the top forward penalty kill unit for the Penguins the last four seasons.
With Brian Boyle seemingly set to retire, and Bryan Rust needing to focus more on the scoring side of the game, the Penguins could use another top penalty kill guy to keep the team in the top five in that category.
As always with Aston-Reese, what you get defensively is the inverse of what he brings offensively at the NHL level. Aston-Reese has collected 32 goals in 230 career games. He averages 6.4 goals per season while having a career 9.1 shooting percentage, which guarantees that he will produce at or below a fourth line average.
As far as offensive production, Aston-Reese would be a step back from some in-house options such as Drew O'Connor and Radim Zohorna. O'Connor took another step towards becoming an NHL regular last season playing in 22 games with the Penguins.
The team sent him down in the middle of the season to work on his penalty killing skills and fine tune his offensive touch. In 33 games at the AHL level, O'Connor produced 12 goals and 32 points, proving that he could be ready to become a full-time NHL player.
Zohorna just finished his second season since coming over to North America. He has played in 25 games for the Penguins, scoring four goals and ten points. The Penguins like his big frame (6'6" 220 lbs.) and his ability to play on both wings.
Both Zohorna and O'Connor could prove to be solid NHL options for the Penguins next season, but if they need depth at the forward position, Aston-Reese's may be a door they knock on during free agency.
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