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Zach Aston-Reese’s unique path to $1.725 million

He’s one of the oldest 2021 free agents to sign his first million dollar-plus contract.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins
Zach Aston-Reese battles Semyon Varlamov in Game 2 of the 2021 first round on May 18.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, the USHL named 40 players to a Top Prospect Game, giving skaters a chance to show off their talents prior to the 2012 NHL Draft. The list included a few familiar names, including Mike Matheson, Jaccob Slavin, Vinnie Hinostroza and, of course, 17-year-old Zach Aston-Reese, who was in the midst of his first full USHL season.

Aston-Reese was held off the scoreboard in the exhibition game, a blanking that perhaps put the nail in the coffin of his hopes of being drafted by an NHL team.

The forward instead headed to Northeastern, where he would eventually become one of the best players in college hockey— and begin a journey that, nearly a decade later, would lead him to signing his first contract worth over $1 million dollars.

What changed at Northeastern?

Aston-Reese’s didn’t put up attention-grabbing stat lines with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, where he played from 2010 to 2013. In his final USHL season, he recorded a career-best 30 points (9-21—30) in 60 games. He wasn’t known for his production but rather his 200-foot game and willingness to tough it out along the boards, a tenacity that alone couldn’t get Aston-Reese into the NHL but was enough to earn him a fourth-line roster spot in his freshman year at Northeastern.

Then Aston-Reese began to work on his shot— according to Jim Madigan, current Athletic Director and former hockey coach at Northeastern, he spent years as a regular participant at post-practice shooting sessions— and his prospects changed.

In the final 21 games of his junior 2015-16 season, Reese racked up 26 points in a streak that helped send Northeastern to the 2016 NCAA tournament. The next campaign, he proved that wasn’t a fluke by putting up one of the best offensive seasons in Northeastern history.

In 2016-17, Aston-Reese became the 16th NCAA player since 2007 to top 30 goals as he tied for the national lead with 63 points (31-32—63) in 38 games, an offensive explosion that earned him a nomination for the Hobey Baker Award and the interest of half the NHL.

How does Aston-Reese compare to other 2021 free agents?

David Kampf (26 years old), Jani Hakanpaa (29) and former Penguin Frederick Gaudreau (28) are the only three free agents the same age as or older than 26-year-old Aston-Reese to sign their first contract with a cap hit above $1 million so far in 2021 free agency.

Generally, once a skater has topped 25 years old, NHL scouts and general managers believe they know what they’re getting. With the salary cap ceiling sitting at $81.5 million since 2019-20— and expected to only increase by small amounts through 2025-26— the likelihood of a relatively low-paid player getting a sudden raise over that age is low.

NHL skaters’ ages correlate with their expected Wins Against Replacement. Chart by EvolvingWild for Hockey-Graphs.

Just as in his path to the NHL, Aston-Reese is one of the exceptions to this rule. Taking the opposite path to naturally gifted shooters like Patrik Laine or Alex Ovechkin, Aston-Reese didn’t develop his defensive game to complement his offensive abilities. He developed his offensive abilities in order to complement his defensive game, with the goal of becoming the kind of player who, to quote Aston-Reese in 2017, “coaches don’t really have to worry about them defensively and they can provide secondary scoring”.

Achieving that goal that turned him into a solid bottom-six winger who earned his one-year, $1.725 million contract with the 2021-22 Penguins as one of the modern NHL’s rare cases of a late-blooming skater.