“There’s a little bit more confidence,” the 24-year-old forward said. “I don’t want to use the word comfort because there’s never any comfort. To an extent you know the guys a little bit more, you know what to expect a little bit more. You know how hard it’s going to be going in, so you know how to prepare for it.”
Some of that preparation came last season, when Aston-Reese played 16 regular-season games. He’s hoping the work he’s put in during the offseason allows him to push that number closer to 82.
There will be spots available this season. The Penguins traded forward Conor Sheary to the Buffalo Sabres on June 27, and forward Tom Kuhnhackl agreed to a one-year contract with the New York Islanders on July 2.
“I think it’s just competing every night,” Aston-Reese said. “That’s one of the struggles with guys coming into the League, being able to play a full 60 minutes for 82 games. You can’t come in and just play 10 games and then take the next 10 games off. I think just having a good summer here, and being a consistent player all season.”
Aston-Reese started last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League and made his NHL debut Feb. 3. He had six points (four goals, two assists) while averaging 11:23 of ice time.
He had a regular spot in the lineup during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and had one assist in an average of 9:39 in nine games.
“When I was up for the 16 games I played, they moved me from the fourth line at the start to the first line,” he said. “Then I missed a bit of time with an injury, then I started again on the fourth line, stayed there for the playoffs. Coach [Mike] Sullivan likes to juggle the lines a lot during the games. I think you need to go in with the mindset that you can play wherever.”
Aston-Reese’s season ended when he sustained a concussion and a broken jaw on a hit by Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round. He said it took about 6-7 weeks for him to feel better, but he’s healthy now and has gained back any weight he lost while his jaw was healing.
The injury meant Aston-Reese (6-foot, 204 pounds) was watching when the Penguins had their attempt to win the Stanley Cup for a third straight season end with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Capitals in Game 6.
He said the general feeling around the teammates he’s spoken to during the offseason has been bitterness, not only because they didn’t win another championship, but for having to see the rival Capitals celebrating all summer.
“It always stinks when it’s not your team winning, and when it’s a rival it stings a little bit more, little more salt in the wound,” he said.
Aston-Reese has shifted his focus to the work he must put in to have a full-time spot with the Penguins. That included three games in two days at the Checking For Charity tournament this weekend, playing on a team that included Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Matt Benning and forward Dominik Shine, who plays for Grand Rapids in the AHL and was a teammate with Lincoln of the United States Hockey League from 2011-13.
“Always good to shake a little bit of rust off when you get back to playing 5-on-5 hockey,” he said. “It was fun. Been about six years since (he and Shine) played together.”
The fun was a reward for the work Aston-Reese has put in. He said his focus was adding lower-body strength to help his skating and in winning battles along the boards. Those were areas Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford told him he needed to be better during their exit meetings.
“[Sullivan and Rutherford] talked about how coming into camp I need to show that I belong,” he said. “I’ve had a good summer. I’ve been happy with my summer, had time to reset and heal from my injury. I’ve been at it for a while here and I’m feeling strong.”