By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PHILADELPHIA — With his classes at Northeastern University in Boston canceled Tuesday because of the winter storm, Zach Aston-Reese finally had some time to think.
After giving his hockey future some serious thought, Aston-Reese settled on signing a two-year, entry-level deal with the Penguins, adding to the organization’s recent success when it comes to college free agents.
“Pittsburgh is a really good organization,” Aston-Reese said. “You look at the college free agents that have gone there the last couple years. A lot of them have had success. It’s a good day. I know my family’s really happy.”
So are the Penguins.
Aston-Reese is a 6-foot, 204-pound forward who led the NCAA with 31 goals and 63 points with Northeastern this past season. He was the most sought-after college free agent on the market, with more than a dozen teams interested.
General manager Jim Rutherford compared Aston-Reese to Patric Hornqvist for his tenacity and how relentlessly he plays the game.
“He’s a player with a lot of character and determination,” Rutherford said. “He brings it to the room and on the ice. The shortest way I can describe him is he’s a ‘Hornqvist-type player.’ “
A few of the players Aston-Reese mentioned — college free agents who have signed with the Penguins — include Conor Sheary, Thomas Di Pauli and Ethan Prow.
Rutherford has seemingly found restocking the cupboard through college free agency to be a beneficial route, and the players the Penguins have been signing are taking notice.
“They have a lot of good guys in their organization,” Aston-Reese said. “I think they have the resume, I guess, to back that up with the players that they’ve brought in and developed. I’m really looking forward to making the next step.”
The two-year deal starts next season. Aston-Reese, 22, will report to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this weekend on an amateur tryout contract.
Rutherford said the Penguins project Aston-Reese as a left wing in the pros, and the GM doesn’t believe it will be long before he makes the NHL roster.
“He’ll certainly be given a good chance next year,” Rutherford said. “We like to put guys into Wilkes-Barre for a few games, more along the lines of what we did with [Jake] Guentzel, where he played a half a season, got his confidence, and worked on his skill level. [Aston-Reese] is a good player that will probably be in Pittsburgh sooner than later.”
Aston-Reese’s father, Will, is from Crafton, although Zach said that didn’t play much of a factor into the decision.
“That’s just a bonus,” he said.
Sort of like Aston-Reese’s offense, you could argue.
He has plenty of size and works hard to play a 200-foot game — music to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s ears. It’s tough to argue with the results.
In four years at Northeastern, the Staten Island, N.Y., native produced 66 goals and 148 points in 145 games.
“I really pride myself on being able to play defensively first and having that lead to offense,” Aston-Reese said. “I like to find quiet areas down low and play with the puck, try to create opportunities to get the puck to the net.”
Aston-Reese is a graphic-design major and spent time helping out at his mother Carolyn’s embroidery shop back home, working on logo design and silk prints.
The major is unique — “I didn’t really want to do what everyone else was doing — business program or communications,” Aston-Reese said — and it affords him a way to make this transition quickly while also graduating on time.
“[I] have to talk to some of my teachers,” Aston-Reese said. “I’ve already talked to one. Kind of work something out where I can be in touch with them while I’m gone. … I don’t really have tests or finals. They’re more projects.”