Penguins notebook: Team lands top college free agent Aston-Reese from Northeastern
PHILADELPHIA — As perhaps the most sought-after undrafted college free agent in hockey, Northeastern forward Zach Aston-Reese got used to seeing handfuls of NHL executive hanging around the rink after his games.
Two of them were Penguins development coach Mark Recchi and assistant general manager Bill Guerin.
As Aston-Reese sat down Tuesday to decide where he would sign his first pro contract, he thought back to conversations he had with Recchi and Guerin about the Penguins' development system.
He considered the team's recent track record with college free agents, including top-line winger Conor Sheary. He pictured where he would fit into the organization's depth chart.
Then he put pen to paper, signing a two-year, entry-level deal with the defending Stanley Cup champs. He will report to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this weekend on an amateur tryout contract. His NHL deal will take effect next season.
“At the end of the day, when I narrowed it down, in my heart, Pittsburgh's the place I felt like I wanted to go,” Aston-Reese said.
Aston-Reese might not be as coveted as last year's top college free agent, Harvard winger Jimmy Vesey, but he's not far off. A 6-foot, 204-pound left-handed shooter from Staten Island, N.Y., Aston-Reese had a breakout senior season, leading the NCAA with 31 goals and 63 points in 38 games.
Aston-Reese isn't necessarily known as a naturally gifted skater or scorer. His offense comes from his diligent two-way play and nose for the net. It's something he's had to work at through three seasons of junior hockey in Lincoln, Neb., and four years at Northeastern.
“For me, that was something that took work,” Aston-Reese said. “This year, it finally paid off.”
With scoring credentials that are beyond reproach, the No. 1 thing the 22-year-old will have to show while in Wilkes-Barre is that his speed and strength are NHL-caliber.
“Whenever you make the jump to the next level, you're always thinking about what the pace is going to be like. One of the things I might need work on is getting the pace and the timing down at the next level,” Aston-Reese said. “One thing I guess I'll find out is how strong I am compared to the rest of the pros. It's something I'm excited to find out.”
As the Penguins wrap up a five-game road trip Wednesday in Philadelphia, they could be without as many as eight lineup regulars because of injury.
Mark Streit suffered a lower-body injury in the first period of a 4-3 shootout loss in Calgary on Monday, leaving the game and visiting a hospital for further medical attention. He joins fellow defensemen Kris Letang (upper body), Olli Maatta (hand) and Trevor Daley (knee) on the injured list.
At forward, Matt Cullen (lower body) could make his return to the lineup soon, but Patric Hornqvist (concussion), Carl Hagelin (lower body) and Bryan Rust (upper body) remain out.
Despite the lengthy injury report, the Penguins head into Philadelphia unbeaten in regulation in their previous six games (5-0-1).
“It's not easy, but we've done this all year,” Sidney Crosby said. “We've had to plug guys in, and they've come in and done a great job. Hopefully (Streit is) OK, but that's going to happen sometimes. Just approach it the same way we have all year long.”