March is probably the most visible month for NCAA hockey, as the "Frozen Four" tournament is about to begin and also as undrafted seniors end their collegiate careers and look to sign with NHL clubs.
One of the biggest prospects turning heads is Zach Aston-Reese, a left-handed right-winger. He turns 23 this summer and isn't the most gifted physically listed at 6'0, 204 pounds but has certainly stood out in a big way this season at Northeastern.
From our always awesome affiliate SBN College Hockey
Aston-Reese concludes his senior season with 31 goals and 32 assists for 63 points. He had 162 shots on goal and was +13. He took 32 penalties for 72 minutes. He finished his career with 66 goals and 82 assists for 148 points.
The Staten Island, NY native will almost certainly sign a two-way NHL entry level contract on Monday. Frontrunners are believed to be Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. However, there are several other teams in the hunt.
Aston-Reese and his agent will likely be looking for a team that is willing to let him burn a year off his entry-level contract this season. It is also a safe bet he'll aim for a team with less forward depth, making it easier to stick with the big team as the difference in salary from NHL to AHL is significant.
They also give a scouting report as:
He plays a heavy game and he is consistently strong on pucks. He has four shorthanded goals this season. One of them, earlier in the season, he did great work along the wall to win a battle, killing time if nothing else. But, then he came away with the puck and scored.
The question some NHL teams will have is how heavy is game can be at the pro level when he's having to go up and down the sheet at the pace of pro hockey for 12-14 minutes a game.
At the next level, he's going to have to be a bottom six player, and all indications point to him being able to do just that. A lot of his goals have come off tip-ins, rebounds or looks in the slot where he's found a seam in the defense and received a good pass. Very few of his plays are of the highlight reel variety.
While he doesn't have the hands or elite speed to be a top six player, he can be a bottom six forward that does a good job in his own zone taking away time and space, and winning puck battles along the wall. He can cycle well down low, be a puck hound in all three zones, and push possession while he's out there. He can kill penalties and chip in offensively from time to time.
TSN's Bob McKenzie also confirmed the Penguins interest via a couple of tweets:
As noted in story, two prominent UFAs - forward Aston-Reese (NU) and defenceman Bayreuther (SLU) - likely to sign in next 24-48 hours.— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) March 13, 2017
PIT, EDM, VAN, SJ, LA, DET in on one of them (Aston-Reese); BUF, DAL, NJ, COL in on the other (Bayreuther).— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) March 13, 2017
It remains to be seen where Pittsburgh is in that pecking order. Like SNBCH said above, the player will want to play this season to use a year of his entry level contract. Considering he's almost 23, that's not a big issue to allow his contract situation to tick on, since he'll probably have a short time to sink or swim in the NHL anyways.
Will Aston-Reese be the next Conor Sheary type? Or Brian Gibbons. Both were college UFA's. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.Either way, this is a kid who went undrafted in 2012-14, a series of years when Pittsburgh made various trades to send away all kinds of draft picks in the effort of winning championships. They failed in those years, and are left with a little bit of a talent hole for players in the organization in that 21-23 year old age range (with some notable exceptions like Jake Guentzel, Olli Maatta and Matt Murray. Adding a big-time 23 year old for nothing would be a great boost for the team and chance to add more talent.
Then again, it's the player's choice and Aston-Reese may find that his career is better suited on a team that isn't a contender and has less NHL caliber depth, but the Pens can point to a guy like Sheary as a perfect example of a late blooming player that they helped develop into a credible Top 6 NHLer who gets to play with Sidney Crosby. Not a bad sales pitch to use.