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Aston-Reese confident Penguins can make another run at Stanley Cup

Forward in line for increased role after roster changes, first-round playoff loss

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Zach Aston-Reese says he is confident the Pittsburgh Penguins can make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season after getting swept in the first round last season.

"We have three of the best players in the NHL, Tanger (Kris Letang), Sid (Sidney Crosby) and Geno (Evgeni Malkin)," Aston-Reese said after playing in a Checking For Charity game at Flyers Skate Zone on Friday. "I think they've had a good summer to rest. I think they're going to come back real strong. 

"They're getting older ... but I think they still have a few good years ahead of them and they want to win. I think with that leadership and some of the moves we've made, where younger guys are going to be asked to step up, I think that's a good combination for success."

The Penguins were swept by the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round, which gave Aston-Reese more time to train and prepare for the season. He changed his offseason routine, moving to Toronto to work with Andy O'Brien, the Penguins director of sports science, at his gym.

Video: PIT@CBJ: Aston-Reese snaps shot past Bobrovsky

"Just from diet to doing treatment beyond working out," Aston-Reese said. "I've been on the ice since June, so being in that environment. The biggest thing for me is getting a little bit faster and fixing my body. I've had a lot of tough injuries. Being able to stay healthy has been my biggest issue."

Last season, Aston-Reese missed 12 games after breaking his left hand in a game against the Florida Panthers on Jan. 8, then missed the final 13 games of the regular season after sustaining a lower-body injury March 10 against the Boston Bruins. He played in all four playoff games against the Islanders.

Aston-Reese said the extra work has left him feeling quicker and more agile on the ice. He's been able to display that while playing in the three-day Checking For Charity tournament, which includes more than 40 teams at various skill levels playing games throughout southern New Jersey. Aston-Reese's team is playing in the A/Pro Division, and among his teammates is San Jose Sharks forward Kevin Labanc.

Aston Reese signed a two-year, $2 million contract with the Penguins on July 22, and the 25-year-old forward is in line for a bigger role after Pittsburgh made offseason changes at forward. He had 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 43 games last season after having six points (four goals, two assists) in 16 games in 2017-18.

Forward Matt Cullen retired, and forward Phil Kessel was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Unrestricted free agent forward Brandon Tanev signed a six-year contract, and defenseman Olli Maatta was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Dominik Kahun. That could lead to Aston-Reese moving up the lineup and playing more than the 13:39 per game he averaged last season.

"A two-year, one-way (contract), a lot more is going to be expected of me," Aston-Reese said. "I think a lot more is going to be expected from the bottom-six players. We brought in Brandon Tanev, having Teddy Blueger as our center, they're going to look to us to step up. With the locker room being a little bit different, I think there's a lot of room for growth for us."

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