Why Zach Aston-Reese has a good shot at cracking the Maple Leafs' roster on a PTO

Zach Aston-Reese, seen here with Anaheim, has been signed to a professional tryout deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Karl B DeBlaker/AP)

TORONTO — If his approach to hunting down pucks is any indication, Zach Aston-Reese will be aggressive in his pursuit of a spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster.

And he's a smart bet to emerge from training camp with the very thing he’s chasing.

Signed on Friday to a professional tryout, Aston-Reese is a forechecking force on the left flank who ranked 11th among all NHL forwards in hits (231) in 2021-22, despite averaging only 13:02 over 69 games played.

The most frequent hitting Leafs forward last season was Wayne Simmonds, who ranked 49th in the category with 145.

Ironically, it’s likely the 34-year-old Simmonds’ spot in a refreshed lineup is the one that Aston-Reese, 28, will be gunning for.

Toronto’s fourth line has long been, at best, a work-in-progress. At its worst, it's been a liability that has been outmatched or seldom trusted by Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe come playoff time.

Seeking more energy and consistency down the bench, general manager Kyle Dubas has been aggressive in overhauling a fourth line in need of a stronger identity — and more speed.

“We would like it to be a line that can be heavily relied on for us, like our others, but just more physicality, more competitiveness and drive the play down the ice and be relied upon for Sheldon that way,” Dubas said in July.

With Jason Spezza (retired), Ondrej Kase (Carolina) and Colin Blackwell (Chicago) no longer on the roster, Dubas devoted a portion of this off-season digging through cap-friendly, bottom-six options to in search of gems.

Right wing Nicolas Aubé-Kubel and centre Adam Gaudette are two defensively responsible forwards who will be depended upon to prevent more goals than they score. Both inked no-risk, one-year contracts when free agency opened on July 13. Aubé-Kubel for $1 million, Gaudette for $750,000.

Should Aston-Reese impress at camp, which opens on Sept. 21, expect him to sign a similar, short-term pact.

“We have space. We have roster spots that are still available for, really, all different kinds of players,” Dubas said.

“They're obviously going to have to be guys that look at our situation and say, ‘I can go there for a year or two on relatively low dollars, and the group would be a fit for me to have success and then parlay that into something greater.’ ”

As colleague Mark Spector reports, Aston-Reese chose a Maple Leafs tryout over one with the Edmonton Oilers.

The undrafted Staten Island, N.Y., native scored five goals, added 10 assists, and registered a plus-9 rating last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks.

Despite only starting 33.4 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone, the checker regularly drove play forward.

He’s also adept at killing penalties and could fill some of the PK minutes previously eaten up by Ilya Mikheyev (Vancouver) and Kase.

Aston-Reese’s blend of physicality and sturdy underlying metrics caught Dubas’ eye early in the UFA recruiting process, and it is mildly surprising that Aston-Reese did not secure a contract outright.

A tryout certainly doesn’t guarantee a contract. Last September, the Maple Leafs brought in Nikita Gusev and Josh Ho-Sang on PTOs to spark internal competition. The former was released and rejoined SKA St. Petersburg. The latter never graduated from the AHL Marlies and has since signed in the KHL as well.

Considering how Aston-Reese’s style of play and the Maple Leafs’ needs align, he has a greater chance to snatch a defensive role here.

And the role player’s arrival instantly ups the intrigue on the fringes of the roster.

Worst case, he’ll get a bump in publicity and will be free to sign elsewhere.

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